How Hand Pain Is Treated

Hand pain can result from a variety of different conditions, including osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, peripheral neuropathy, carpal tunnel syndrome, lupus, fibromyalgia, and injuries to the hand and finger joints, cartilage, or surrounding muscles. Hand pain can significantly impact your ability to perform motions like grasping, gripping, and pinching, making everyday tasks and activities of daily living challenging and painful. 

When to See a Doctor

If you have been experiencing significant hand pain that is interfering with your ability to perform everyday tasks, you should schedule an appointment with a doctor. You should seek immediate medical attention if you experience significant numbness, tingling, or weakness in your hands. These are possible signs that you may have a serious medical condition.

There are many different treatment options for hand pain that include conservative measures like pain relievers and home remedies, specialty services such as physical therapy and acupuncture, and more invasive procedures like injections and surgery. A combination of different treatment approaches is usually the most effective for managing symptoms.

Man rubbing sore hand

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Home Remedies

Heat and Cold Therapy

Heat and cold therapy are both beneficial for relieving pain, but each is appropriate for different conditions. Heat therapy is best used for chronic issues to help loosen and relax tight muscles and stiff joints, especially with osteoarthritis. Heat is also beneficial for alleviating finger pain and stiffness with rheumatoid arthritis, except during periods of acute flare-ups. Application of heat during rheumatoid arthritis flare-ups can increase inflammation and worsen symptoms.

Cold therapy is best used to decrease inflammation, especially after surgery, acute injuries, or in cases of tendonitis. Ice also helps to decrease the swelling and irritation caused by carpal tunnel syndrome.

Stretches

Stretching the finger flexor muscles can help decrease muscle tightness and prevent the development of muscle contractures. Research supports that stretching is especially useful and recommended for decreasing inflammation of the flexor tendons that make up the carpal tunnel, which can become inflamed and cause symptoms associated with carpal tunnel syndrome.

The finger flexors can be stretched by using your hand to bend your fingers backward, holding this position for 30 to 60 seconds and repeating it several times each day. You should feel a stretch in both the fingers and forearm. Specific nerve-gliding and tendon-gliding exercises can also be performed to relieve symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome.

Splints

Hand splints and braces can be used to support the wrist and finger joints for immobilization to allow the joints to rest and heal as inflammation subsides. Splinting can also keep your joints in good alignment to prevent further damage and joint irritation.

Research supports the beneficial use of hand splinting for arthritis pain and trigger finger when hand and finger corticosteroid injections are declined or deemed not appropriate for other medical reasons, such as problems with blood sugar regulation.

Over-The Counter (OTC) Therapies

Oral Medicines

Over-the-counter pain-relieving medications such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) and ibuprofen (Advil) or anti-inflammatory medications like naproxen sodium (Aleve) can help reduce hand pain, swelling, and inflammation. Evidence supports the use of these types of medications for the treatment of a variety of hand and wrist sprains, nonspecific hand pain, and osteoarthritis of the hands and fingers.

Topical Pain Relievers

Over-the-counter creams and ointments, especially those containing capsaicin, an extract derived from chili peppers, can be applied topically to the hands and fingers to help relieve pain by decreasing the intensity of pain signals sent along nerve pathways.

Research supports the use of both topical pain relievers and capsaicin cream specifically for treating osteoarthritis of the hands to decrease pain and improve symptoms.

Prescription Medication

NSAIDs

If symptoms are severe enough, your doctor may prescribe a higher dosage of a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) to help decrease your hand pain to be able to perform everyday activities with less discomfort.

Corticosteroids

Corticosteroids such as cortisone and prednisone may also be prescribed to reduce pain, swelling, and inflammation within the hand and finger joints and surrounding soft tissues. Corticosteroids can be administered orally by taking a pill, topically by applying a cream that is absorbed through the skin, or injected directly into the joints or tendons of the hands and fingers. Research recommends the use of corticosteroid injections specifically for the treatment of arthritis, trigger finger, tendonitis, and carpal tunnel syndrome.

Corticosteroid injections are performed under local anesthesia, allowing you to be awake for the procedure with your hands and fingers numbed. A small amount of anesthesia will be injected into your joints before the corticosteroid injection, which usually begins to work two to three days later.

Corticosteroid injections can help relieve pain and reduce symptoms between six weeks and six months, although the injections are not effective for everyone. You will typically not be allowed to receive more than two or three injections per year.

Frequent corticosteroid usage can cause weakening of the muscles, tendons, and ligaments surrounding the fingers. Corticosteroid injections may not be recommended for patients who have diabetes or other problems with blood sugar since corticosteroid use can raise blood sugar levels.

Pain Medicine

Opioid medications like oxycodone, hydrocodone, morphine, and tramadol may be prescribed by your doctor for acute issues (fractures, sprains, surgery, etc.) to help relieve pain if over-the-counter or prescription NSAIDs do not relieve your hand pain.

Opioids are a group of strong pain-relieving medications that are not recommended for mild pain or minor injuries. Evidence recommends opioid usage for severe pain from large burns, severe fractures, or injuries with significant tissue damage only when pain cannot be controlled by other means.

DMARDs 

Disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs) are drugs specifically prescribed for rheumatoid arthritis and other autoimmune conditions like psoriasis, lupus, and ankylosing spondylitis. DMARDs decrease inflammation throughout the body by altering the immune system response.

Because DMARDs lower your immune system response, you may be at an increased risk of infection while taking these medications. Make sure to talk with your doctor about all the risks and benefits of taking DMARD medication.

Physical Therapy and Occupational Therapy

Physical or occupational therapy can help relieve hand pain by improving joint mobility, range of motion, and hand strength to help with everyday tasks like grasping, gripping, and pinching. Other modalities like heat or cold therapy, paraffin wax application, or electrical stimulation can be applied to your hands and fingers to help decrease pain, stiffness, swelling, and inflammation.

Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM)

Acupuncture

Acupuncture involves inserting thin needles into the muscles of the hands to help relieve pressure points and reduce pain. Acupuncture is more effective for superficial conditions that affect the soft tissues, rather than conditions that are deep within the hand and finger joints and difficult to access. More research is needed to support the overall effectiveness of acupuncture since there is not sufficient evidence to support its use for managing hand pain.

Supplements

Certain dietary supplements can help support healthy cartilage to protect the hand and finger joints from wear and tear. Glucosamine and chondroitin, compounds naturally found within cartilage cells, can help repair damaged cartilage in the joints and prevent enzymes from further breaking down cartilage. Vitamin D3 is also important for maintaining good bone health and supporting immune system functioning to decrease inflammation throughout the body.

Essential Oils

Essential oils are concentrated oils derived from plants, fruits, and herbs that are thought to have anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving properties. Essential oils can be applied topically and massaged into the skin or used for aromatherapy by inhaling the scent from the oils. Essential oils are considered a form of complementary and alternative medicine that requires more formal clinical research to determine their overall effectiveness.

Surgery

For conditions that do not improve with any of the above treatment options, surgery may be required to manage symptoms of hand pain and dysfunction.

Common surgical procedures used to treat hand pain include:

  • Trigger finger surgery: Surgically releases a tightened finger tendon to restore full range of motion
  • Dupuytren’s contracture surgery: Surgically cuts and loosens contracted finger tendons in the palm of the hand to restore mobility of the fingers
  • Carpal tunnel surgery: Surgically cuts the transverse carpal ligament to decrease compression of the median nerve at the wrist
  • Joint replacement surgery (arthrodesis): Replaces a bone in the hand or fingers with an artificial replacement to relieve pain from osteoarthritis and improve finger mobility
  • Trapeziectomy: Surgically removes the trapezium bone of the thumb joint to relieve pain from severe thumb osteoarthritis

A Word From Verywell

Conservative measures like pain medication and physical therapy are often prescribed first to help manage hand pain. If symptoms still persist after several weeks or months, diagnostic imaging like X-rays, CT scans, MRIs, or blood work may be needed to diagnose the exact cause of your hand pain to determine the next steps in your treatment plan.

Prevention is key to avoiding hand pain and possible complications that may require surgery. Getting enough sleep, eating healthy, and protecting your hands and fingers from repetitive overuse can help lower levels of inflammation and reduce the risk of injury.

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Article Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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