Easing the aches from hand osteoarthritis, carpal tunnel syndrome

By Lindsey Konkel,

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We use our hands for activities from cooking to brushing our teeth to gardening to writing a shopping list. So when our hands, wrists or fingers hurt, that pain can interfere with much of what we do.

This kind of discomfort can also be more likely to occur with age: The Arthri­tis Foundation estimates that about half of all women and a quarter of men will experience hand pain because of osteoarthritis — when the protective cartilage between bones wears down — by age 85. But there are ways to ease the ache.

3 reasons your hand hurts

Hand pain and stiffness are typical with osteoarthritis. “The base of the thumb is one of the most common places in the entire body to develop osteo­arthritis,” says Jacob Tulipan, an orthopedic hand surgeon at Rothman Orthopaedic Institute at AtlantiCare in Egg Harbor Township, N.J.

People with hand osteoarthritis, especially at the base of the thumb, will often experience achy pain that worsens with tasks that require pinching, gripping and grasping — for instance, turning a car key or tightening a jar lid, says Julie Adams, professor of orthopedic surgery at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center College of Medicine in Chattanooga.

Another culprit could be trigger finger, when one of the cordlike tendons that let your fingers bend and straighten becomes inflamed. This condition causes an often painful locking or catching sensation when bending and straightening the finger.

Numbness, pain or tingling in the hand, wrist or arm can also be caused by carpal tunnel syndrome — when one of the major nerves leading to the hand becomes pinched as it passes through the wrist. Older age and conditions such as diabetes and rheumatoid arthri­tis can hike the risk of carpal tunnel, Tulipan says.

Handling it at home

Over-the-counter, nonsteroidal, anti-­inflam­matory drugs, including ibuprofen (Motrin) and naproxen (Aleve), may help relieve joint swelling and inflam­ma­tion caused by osteoarthritis, according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, but they won’t reverse joint damage.

A hot or cold compress may ease pain, though finding out which works better could require some trial and error, ­Adams says. Heat might be useful for stiff joints before an activity because it helps increase blood flow to the area, and cold may reduce pain and swelling after use.

For thumb pain caused by osteoarthritis, you may want to modify frequently used items, such as pens and toothbrushes, “so you don’t have to exert as much force when holding,” ­Adams says: For instance, “try wrapping tape around the pen so that when you grip it, it’s bigger and doesn’t hurt as much.”

A simple drugstore finger splint, worn occasionally at night, might help symptoms of trigger finger; a wrist splint may ease carpal tunnel symptoms. “Splinting helps keep the wrist straight at night,” Adams says.

Exercises to try

To help prevent and counter stiffness and pain, no matter the cause, Tulipan recommends doing these five exercises (10 repetitions of each, twice a day). Your doctor may recommend other exercises for specific conditions.

Exercise 1: With wrists and fingers straight, make a “tabletop” with fingers. Bend at the knuckles. Hold briefly, then straighten.

Exercise 2: Make a fist, then straighten fingers.

Exercise 3: Make an “O” by touching your thumb to your fingertips, one at a time.

Exercise 4: With one hand resting on a flat surface palm down, spread your fingers wide apart and bring them together again.

Exercise 5: Start as you do with No. 4, then raise and lower each finger, one at a time.

When to see the doctor

If bothersome symptoms persist, it may be time to see an orthopedic hand surgeon, Adams says. These doctors are hand pain specialists, and though the title implies surgery, most cases do not require surgical treatment, she adds.

Treatments vary depending on the pain’s cause and severity. Corticosteroid injections could reduce discomfort and inflammation caused by osteoarthritis or trigger finger. “Some people find little relief, while others experience complete relief of symptoms for a year or more,” Tulipan says.

Prescription topical anti-inflammatory medicines can sometimes help, too. Surgery may be an option when other treatments fail — or for carpal tunnel — to prevent permanent sensation loss.

 Copyright 2021, Consumer Reports Inc.

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