The role of physiotherapy in treating hand arthritis


The role of physiotherapy in treating hand arthritis

Updated 6th April 2021

The hands and feet are often the first body areas that show signs of arthritis. This degenerative disease is caused by breakdown of cartilage, leading to swelling, bone spurs, and pain. Basically, the cartilage is either injured or worn out. While there is no cure for hand arthritis, doctors can design a plan to ease pain and restore joint function.


What Is Hand Arthritis?

Arthritis can affect one or more joints, including those in your fingers, thumbs, wrists, and knuckles. When the cartilage begins to break down, you may experience pain and inflammation. This connective tissue allows for a smooth motion between your joints. Contact sports and repetitive motions of the hand increase the risk of arthritis.


Statistics indicate that 28 percent of Australians suffer from arthritis and other diseases affecting the bones. In 2009, this condition resulted in over 1,078 deaths. Women and overweight people carry a higher risk. Obese individuals are 2.4 times more likely to develop this disease compared to those of normal weight.


Your hands, wrists, and fingers have 29 bones and multiple small joints. These structures work together to move the hand. Arthritis can affect their function, making daily activities difficult. You might have a hard time threading a needle, writing, or typing on the computer. The pain gets worse during exercise and subsides at rest.


Hand arthritis becomes more severe as the cartilage wears down. Your soft tissues become weaker and your mobility decreases. Over time, you may experience complete loss of function, joint deformity, weaker grip, and reduced flexibility.


What Causes Hand Arthritis?

Though this disease is often related to aging, it may have other causes too. Researchers suggest that arthritis is a combination of heredity and lifestyle factors. It runs in families and can be passed from one generation to another. If your parents or siblings have arthritis, you’re at risk too. Physiotherapy, regular exercise, and healthy lifestyle habits can help prevent its onset.


Hand arthritis also tends to occur in obese people. The joints are fragile, so excess weight can wear them down. Trauma, injuries, and joint misalignment only make things worse. Certain health conditions, such as psoriasis, gout, lupus, and infections, may contribute to hand arthritis too.


This condition may result from inflammatory and autoimmune diseases, gene mutations, menopause, and old age. Studies indicate that nearly all women over the age of 70 experience hand arthritis symptoms. The goal of treatment is to slow its progression and reduce complications.


Signs and Symptoms

Many patients have little or no symptoms in the first stages of the disease. For this reason, it’s recommended to see a physiotherapist or a rheumatologist regularly, especially if arthritis runs in your family.


Treatment may not be necessary unless the symptoms affect your daily life. In case of severe pain, doctors may prescribe NSAIDs, chondroitin, and/or glucosamine. Physiotherapy can help prevent this disease and relieve pain.


You may also experience swelling, joint stiffness, reduced mobility, and grinding or crunchy sounds when moving your hands. In advanced stages, hand arthritis may lead to the formation of mucous cysts on the fingers.


Most people struggling with this condition have trouble turning keys, opening lifts, or gripping things. The joints can swell and feel warm to touch. Over time, these changes cause the joints to appear larger than normal or become loose. Thumb deformities are common too.


A physiotherapist or an arthritis specialist can check your hand with X-rays, MRI, or bone scans. These imaging tests will show any deformities or changes in the joint. Bone scans, for instance, help diagnose arthritis in early stages.


Treatment Options for Hand Arthritis

The main goal of hand arthritis treatment is to reduce pain and restore joint mobility. Currently, there is no permanent cure for this disorder. A typical treatment plan may include:

  • Ice and heat therapy (ice packs, paraffin wax baths, warm compresses, etc.)
  • Steroid injections
  • Lubricating injections
  • Topical ointments, gels, and patches
  • Soft sleeve devices
  • Analgesic drugs
  • Anti-inflammatory medications
  • Braces
  • Periodic rest
  • Occupational therapy
  • Physical therapy
  • Hand exercises
  • Hand arthritis gloves
  • Anti-inflammatory diet


A qualified physiotherapist can choose the best treatment options based on your symptoms. He will show you how to protect and rest your hands, what exercises to do, and what activities to avoid. You can also ask him to assess your daily activities and determine which ones do more harm than good.


Considering the wide range of treatments available, surgery should be your last option. Joint fusion and reconstruction are only recommended when the movement becomes too limited or the pain is debilitating. The surgeon will either replace damaged cartilage with prostheses or fuse two bones together to reduce pain.


Treatment options depend on your age, lifestyle, overall health, and severity of the joint damage. It’s also based on the number and types of joints affected.


The Benefits of Physiotherapy in Arthritis Treatment

Physical therapy has emerged as one of the safest, most efficient ways to treat rheumatoid arthritis. Rehabilitation techniques include massage, hydrotherapy, electrical stimulation, cold and heat therapy, and preventive measures.


Cold and heat applications, for instance, provide temporary pain relief. Electro-stimulation helps reduce swelling and improves range of motion. Hydrotherapy activates the parasympathetic nervous system and alleviates pain. The physiotherapist may also recommend assistive devices, manual massage, and hand exercises that strengthen the muscles and joints.


Physio can help improve your strength, flexibility, and dexterity. After a few sessions, you’ll find it easier to work and use your hands. Your joints will become less stiff and the pain will diminish. This treatment method can also reduce fatigue and depression, which are common side effects of arthritis.


Talk with your physiotherapist about compression gloves, splinting, and adaptive equipment. He can prescribe the most suitable products and help you prevent complications. A good physiotherapist will also recommend coordination and balance exercises that improve daily functioning.


Discuss your options in order to make an informed decision. Physiotherapy can make a world of difference, so ask for advice and stick to your treatment.

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