Q. Glen, I have soreness in my hands ! Do you have any suggestions?
A. Many of us take our hands for granted — until pain or loss of function transform even a simple task into a painful ordeal. Arthritis can make it difficult to button a shirt or carry a shopping bag. Carpal tunnel syndrome can interfere with work or hobbies. Hand or finger deformities can make basic self-care routines such as getting dressed or brushing teeth difficult.
Hands are highly visible, so hand pain, swollen joints or finger deformities can cause embarrassment and feelings of helplessness. Problems of the hand range from the mechanical to the neurological. Two leading causes of pain are arthritis and carpal tunnel syndrome, but lupus, gout, cysts, tendonitis, and other injuries can also impair hand function.
Today, nearly one in three adults has arthritis or other chronic joint problems. The key symptoms of arthritis of the hands are stiffness, swelling, pain, and loss of motion and function, making it the leading cause of disability among Americans.
Although there are more than 100 different types of arthritis, the most common by far is osteoarthritis, sometimes called degenerative joint disease. An estimated 21 million Americans, mostly middle-aged and older, have osteoarthritis. In addition to the hands, osteoarthritis typically strikes the knees, hips, feet, and back. Many factors can increase the likelihood of developing osteoarthritis.
Muscle weakness and a history of joint injuries caused by sports or accidents may also make a person more prone to a type of osteoarthritis known as traumatic arthritis. Ordinary, repetitive activities such as typing or playing a musical instrument may worsen arthritis symptoms, but they do not cause osteoarthritis of the hands.
Carpal tunnel syndrome is another cause of hand pain. It affects nearly 2% to 3% of all Americans and is more prevalent among women, affecting nearly twice as many women as men. The classic symptoms are pain, weakness, and tingling in the thumb, index finger, middle finger, and half of the ring finger. Often, these symptoms occur at night and awaken you from sleep. Sleeping with the wrists flexed — a common habit — can contribute to the nighttime symptoms. After you awaken, you may need to shake your hand to restore normal feeling. Some people say their hands feel swollen and useless, even though their hands don’t appear swollen. As the condition progresses, you may start feeling tingling during the day, and the pain may radiate up your arm. It may become difficult to make a tight fist, grasp small objects, or do other things with your hands. In severe, chronic cases, the muscles at the base of the thumb weaken. You may even lose the ability to distinguish between hot and cold by touch. A procedure to ease this nerve disorder is one of the most common surgeries done in the United States, with more than 200,000 procedures performed each year.
Tips for pain-free hands at work
It’s a good idea to have an ergonomic evaluation of your workspace to avoid repetitive strain injuries. If that’s not possible, the following tips may help:
- Keep your wrists in a neutral position, not flexed downward or extended upward, when using your computer. To check, place your wrist, palm facing down, on a flat, hard surface. Put a Band-Aid lengthwise over the top of your wrist, and then move to your keyboard and type. If the Band-Aid stretches or goes slack, your wrists aren’t in a neutral position.
- Get up from your desk and stretch at least once every hour. In between, take shorter breaks to rest your hands, palms up, on your lap or on a wrist rest. You can install software on your computer that reminds you to take micropauses or rest breaks and restricts your daily time on the computer.
- Be skeptical about new keyboard configurations (such as split keyboards) or mouse designs claiming to be ergonomic. It will take many years of study to learn whether such changes translate into fewer work-related upper-extremity musculoskeletal disorders.
I suffer from severe hand pain as well as hand muscle atrophy
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