Arthritis is a painful and frustrating condition, and arthritis in the hands can be particularly restrictive since the hands are in constant use in daily life. From opening jars to brushing teeth, the fingers and hands are key to many of our routine activities, and a condition that restricts movement and causes intense pain in this area is very difficult to live with.
Arthritis affects the joints in the body, and hand arthritis is experienced in the joints of the hands. Arthritis occurs when the cartilage within the joints is damaged, and inflammation and pain are the result. Hand arthritis can develop in different ways, and the treatment you are offered will depend upon the type of arthritis you are experiencing. Here, we will explore the different types of arthritis that can affect the hands, and the treatment options for these.
Three Types of Hand Arthritis
There are three different types of arthritis that can affect the hands and finger, and these are:
- Osteoarthritis: The most common type of finger arthritis is osteoarthritis, which occurs when the normal cartilage is steadily worn away. This can also be called ‘wear and tear arthritis’, as it is an effect of ageing, and it most often affects the knuckles and the joint at the base of the thumb. Bone spurs, known as Herberden’s nodes or Bouchard’s nodes depending on which knuckles are affected, may form around the knuckles of the fingers, causing them to become swollen and stiff.
- Rheumatoid arthritis: Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune condition that can cause many problems in the body, including damaging the joints and the soft tissues around them. The knuckles at the base of the fingers are most commonly affected when rheumatoid arthritis affects the joints in the hands. Rheumatoid arthritis may lead to deformities of the hands as the joints swell and the surrounding bones and muscles are pushed out of position.
- Gout: Gout is generally associated with poor diet, but is actually a condition that occurs when the body cannot metabolise uric acid correctly. This leads to the formation of crystals in the joints, and is most common in the joint of the big toe, although it can also affect the joints in the fingers.
If you are feeling pain in the joints of your hands, especially in the fingers, or noticing swelling, stiffness or loss of motion, you should speak to your doctor and enquire about a referral to a specialist clinic for treatment.
Treatment For Arthritis
The type of treatment you are offered will depend upon the severity of your condition, and it is very important to ask for a referral to an appropriate specialist who can help you. The following are potential treatment options:
- Anti inflammatory medications. Sometimes anti-inflammatory medications will be recommended to reduce the inflammation and swelling in the joints, which can also reduce the pain in the hands. This may be suggested as a short term measure alongside other treatment methods, or may be recommended as a more long term strategy.
- Joint supplements. Taking a supplement of glucosamine and chondroitin may help the body to build new cartilage. Some doctors believe that there is no benefit to this supplement, while others believe that it can be very helpful for some people.
- Hand therapy. Different forms of hand therapy may be offered to combat the stiffness in the joints, and you can discuss this with your specialist or talk to your doctor about working with an occupational therapist.
- Cortisone Injections. Cortisone injections may be used occasionally, and this may help when arthritis in the hands flares up suddenly and severely. This is a very strong anti-inflammatory medication, however, and cannot be used as a regular treatment.
- Ice and heat applications. Applying ice or heat can help to relieve the pain and stiffness in your fingers if they are affected by arthritis, and this is an easy treatment you can try at home. Warm cloths or hand warmers can help to ease the joints, and ice packs can be used to reduce the swelling, which may also improve the range of movement.
- Splints. If you are experiencing severe arthritis, you may find that wearing splints is a useful technique to enable the joints to relax and rest. This is not a long term solution, however, as it may lead to further stiffness in the joints if used for long periods of time, and many specialists do not recommend it.
- Surgery. Extreme cases of hand arthritis may be considered suitable for surgery, and this may be a last resort to help reduce pain and improve range of motion. However, most specialists will recommend trying several treatment options before considering this, as surgical options are invasive and will incur a long and painful process of recovery.
Some of these options may be more appropriate for certain types of arthritis and your treatment route may also depend upon your lifestyle and the extent to which your arthritis is affecting your daily life. Seeking help during the early stages of the disease is very important, and will help to limit damage to your joints and maintain mobility.
Peter Browne, Consultant Rheumatologist in Tralee & Limerick
If you are finding your daily activities limited by pain and swelling in your fingers or hands, it is a good idea to ask your doctor to refer you for specialist treatment.
Dr Peter is a qualified rheumatologist who sees patients in Tralee and Limerick. To make an appointment, you will need to visit your GP or other healthcare professional, who can refer you to our rheumatology clinic. If you have a query, you can contact us online for more information.