Hand Physical Therapy for Arthritis

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Hand therapy is a type of rehabilitation performed by a specialized occupational or physical therapist for people who have conditions affecting the hands and upper extremities to recover optimal function. It focuses on the area between but also including the shoulder and hand, including joints and muscles. Hand therapy helps people relieve pain and continue to perform daily activities.

Patients with different ailments and injuries can benefit from hand therapy. The rehabilitation process is effective for people who, for example, have arthritis, carpal tunnel syndrome, cerebral palsy, fractures, and a prior stroke. Hand therapists often work with a surgical team and help the patient regain physical functioning after surgery.

How Does Hand Therapy Work?

Hand therapy is a type of occupational therapy typically concerned with helping someone with orthopedic-based upper-extremity conditions to perform everyday tasks with their impairment or lessen the pain in their joints and muscles. Hand therapists develop a program that meets the needs of the client—what they want to be able to do in daily life—and emphasizes the performance of desired activities as the primary goal of therapy.

Hand therapy can improve the life quality of people who have the following problems:

hand therapy
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Hand Therapy for Arthritis

Arthritis is a group of conditions that cause inflammation in the joints. A person with these conditions feels pain, swelling, stiffness, and reduced range of motion. There are more than 100 types of arthritis, with the most common being osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. There is no cure for arthritis, but treatments can slow down the progression of the disease, relieve pain, and preserve mobility. 

Hand therapy plays a crucial role in this process. It is vital to exercise the joints daily. Participating in joint-friendly physical activity can improve arthritis pain, function, mood, and quality of life. A hand therapist will offer the patient a personalized strategy. They will assess the condition of your joints, muscle strength, balance, and endurance to help you put together an exercise program for coping with your arthritis.

What Is a Certified Hand Therapist?

A certified hand therapist (CHT) is an occupational therapist or physical therapist who focuses specifically of rehabilitation of the hands and upper extremities. To obtain the CHT credential, a hand therapist must practice for a minimum of three years, accumulating at least 4,000 hours of treatment for hand and upper extremity disorders. They also need to pass a certification exam and recertify every five years.

Wrist Exercises

These exercises help to improve flexibility, and it is possible to do them at any time. You can also use light weights to gain strength, but always check with your hand therapist before trying it.

It is also important to highlight that the exercises listed below should not replace a consultation with a hand therapist, who will choose the activities carefully based on your overall health and physical condition.

Hand therapy aims, among other things, to lessen the pain. It is expected that after the exercises, the area is sore for a while, but if it doesn’t go away or it becomes worse, the patient should contact the hand therapist.

Alphabet Writing

  • Hold the forearm with the opposite hand
  • Start writing the capital letters of the alphabet in the air with loose fingers
  • When it becomes too easy, make the letters smaller and the movements more precise
  • People who need extra support can rest their elbows on a table

Wrist Extension and Flexion

  • Put your wrist on a folded towel on a table and leave your hand handing on the edge
  • Start with your palm facing down and move your hand up and down at the wrist
  • Repeat it with the palm facing up

Wrist Ulnar/Radial Deviation 

  • Support your forearm on a table on a rolled-up towel for padding on your knee, with your thumb facing upward
  • Move the wrist up and down through its full range of motion

 Wrist Supination and Pronation

  • Stand or sit with your arm at your side and the elbow bent to 90 degrees, with palm facing down
  • Rotate your forearm so that your palm faces up and then down

Wrist Flexor Stretch

  • Hold the arm out and keep the palm of your hand facing down
  • Using the other hand, hold the fingers and stretch the wrist backward until a stretch is felt on the inside of the forearm
  • Repeat the movements 10 times and repeat the exercise with the other arm

Grip Exercises

Some diseases, such as arthritis, can affect your grip strength. Simple daily exercises can help with movements and also re-establish the strength in your hands.

 Grip Strengthening

  • Squeeze a grip-strengthening ball as tightly as you can for a few seconds
  • Repeat the movements 10 times in each hand
  • You can also use a tennis or stress ball

 Pinch Grip

  • Hold a ball between your thumb and another finger
  • Squeeze it for five seconds 
  • Repeat the movement 10 times in each hand

Finger Exercises

Finger exercises are essential for improving strength and flexibility and relieving pain. 

Hand/Finger Tendon Glide

  • Start with all your fingers straight and make a hook fist
  • Make your hand straight again and make a full fist
  • Make a straight fist; return to a straight hand
  • Repeat the movement 10 times in each hand

 Make An O

  • Start with your hand straight and slightly bend your thumb toward the other fingers
  • Move your index finger until it touches your thumb and makes and O shape 
  • Hold it for 30 seconds
  • Repeat the movement with each finger 10 times in each hand

Claw Stretch

  • Hold the palm of your hand in your direction with the fingers straight
  • Bend the fingers towards the base of each finger until your hand resembles a claw
  • Keep this position for 60 seconds and repeat four times in each hand 

Thumb Flexion

  • Start with the thumb positioned outward
  • Move it across the palm and back to the starting position

A Word From Verywell

Arthritis can reduce the movement of your hand, arm, and shoulders. You can experience pain, stiffness, and limited mobility. Hand therapy can be a part of your arthritis management plan besides medical therapy. Exercising your joints can potentially help reduce pain and preserve range of motion in your hand. It is essential to schedule an occupational or physical therapist to get a personalized exercise program. It's important to perform these exercises within your limits and avoid straining the joints in your hands further through physical activity.

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Article Sources
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  1. American Society for Surgery of the Hand. Hand Therapy. Updated 2014.

  2. American Occupational Therapy Association. The Unique Role of Occupational Therapy in Rehabilitation of the Hand.

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Arthritis Types.

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Physical Activity for Arthritis. Updated November 8, 2018.

  5. Harvard Health Publishing. Relief for hand arthritis. Updated October 2014.

  6. American Society for Surgery of the Hand. Hand Therapist: What Is A CHT, OT Or PT?

  7. Harvard Health Publish. 5 exercises to improve hand mobility. Updated April 20, 2020.

  8. Massachusetts General Hospital. Wrist and Elbow Strengthening and Stretching Exercises.

  9. Harvard Health Education. Workout for aching hands. Updated October 2010.

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