occupational hand therapy

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,” explains Jackie Loeffler OTR/L, CHT, an occupational therapist with UPMC Rehabilitation Institute.

Whether caused by injury, overuse at work or play, or chronic joint, bone, or nerve conditions, hand disorders need not lead to dependence on others or a compromise of one’s quality of life.

There are many types of therapies and treatments that can:

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

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Hand Therapy Treatments

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.
  • Recommendations for adaptive equipment, joint protection, activity modification, and ergonomics.
  • Iontophoresis – delivery of an anti-inflammatory medication through the skin using direct current.
  • Manual therapy – soft tissue massage, elongation, and stretching.
  • Various orthotics to minimize pain, increase function, and prevent or correct deformities.
  • Personalized home programs.

For those who have osteoarthritis (a type of arthritis that occurs when cartilage 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 conditions can be cured, hand pain and function can be successfully managed via occupational therapy,” Dr. Loeffler says.

Occupational therapists also teach patients self-help techniques to manage their pain. These include modalities for heat and cold, such as hot packs, paraffin wax baths, and ice. The effects are temporary but can be repeated as needed to maximize effectiveness and reach a certain level of comfort.

Hand exercises also are highly effective in increasing comfort and maintaining hand mobility. Occupational therapists can teach patients simple stretches to maintain joint mobility and function.

“The goal of these exercises is to improve mobility rather than increase strength,” explains 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 minimize the impact of injury or disorders of the hand.”

For more information about hand therapy, visit UPMC Rehabilitation Institute or call 1-888-723-4277.


Editor's Note: This article was originally published on , and was last reviewed on .

About UPMC Rehabilitation Institute

The UPMC Rehabilitation Institute offers inpatient, outpatient, and transitional rehabilitation, as well as outpatient physician services so that care is available to meet the needs of our patients at each phase of the recovery process. Renowned physiatrists from the University of Pittsburgh Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, as well as highly trained physical, occupational, and speech therapists, provide individualized care in 12 inpatient units within acute care hospitals and over 80 outpatient locations close to home and work.