Occupational Therapy for Arthritis and Other Hand Disorders

People who experience hand pain or weakness know all too well how disabling and frustrating it is to lose hand function and control. Hand injuries can interfere with the ability to earn a living, attend school, care for family, and enjoy hobbies.

“Sometimes hand problems can make simple activities, such as dressing, eating, writing, driving, or turning on a lamp, uncomfortable, awkward, or even impossible,” explained Jackie Loeffler OTR/L, CHT, an occupational therapist with UPMC Centers for Rehab Services.

Whether caused by injury, overuse at work or play, or chronic joint, bone, or nerve conditions, hand disorders do not have to lead to dependence on others or compromise one’s quality of life. There are many types of therapies and treatments that can:

  • Increase strength and range of motion
  • Improve coordination and sensation
  • Reduce or eliminate pain, swelling, and numbness

The type and severity of the hand disorder is what determines the therapies that need to be used. Patients receive individualized treatment, which may include:

  • Application of heat, cold, ultrasound, and electrical stimulation
  • Biofeedback therapy
  • Ergonomic recommendations
  • Iontophoresis – delivery of an anti-inflammatory medication through the skin using electromotive force
  • Manual therapy
  • Splinting
  • Strengthening and stretching exercises

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For those with osteoarthritis (a type of arthritis that occurs when flexible tissue at the ends of bones wears down) or rheumatoid arthritis (a chronic inflammatory disorder affecting many joints) of the hands, pain can seem like a constant in their lives.

“Though neither of these afflictions can be cured, hand pain and function can be successfully managed via occupational therapy,” Loeffler said.

Occupational therapists may utilize a number of techniques to achieve the treatment goals of the arthritic patient, including:

  • Joint protection techniques through activity modification
  • Joint immobilization through splinting
  • Exercises and modified activities of daily living techniques
  • Education of adaptive equipment options

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Occupational therapists also teach patients self-help techniques to manage their pain. These include thermomodalities for heat and cold, such as hot packs, paraffin wax baths, and ice. The effects are temporary but can be repeated as desired in order to maximize effectiveness and reach a certain level of comfort.
Hand exercises are very effective in increasing comfort and maintaining hand mobility. Occupational therapists can teach patients simple stretches to reduce the effects of arthritis.

“The goal of these exercises is to improve mobility rather than increase strength,” explained Loeffler. “The patient must keep in mind that hand exercises for arthritis should not hurt. If pain is experienced, stop the exercises until it subsides and resume exercising with reduced intensity and speed.

“With proper management and care, occupational therapy is a very effective way to decrease the impact of injury or disorders of the hand.”

For more information about hand therapy, visit UPMC Centers for Rehab Services.