Preventing Arthritis in the Hands

Hand arthritis

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Arthritis includes several conditions that affect the joints. There are more than 100 types of arthritis. Many different types of arthritis can affect the hands, wrists, and fingers, including osteoarthritis (OA) and inflammatory arthritis types like rheumatoid arthritis (RA).

There’s no cure for arthritis, but there are things you can do to reduce the likelihood of getting arthritis in your hands, preventing arthritis flare-ups, and reducing joint damage.

Causes of Arthritis in the Hands

Arthritic conditions can cause pain, stiffness, swelling, and tenderness in the small joints of the hands and fingers.

Inflammatory arthritis conditions, like RA, psoriatic arthritis, gout, and ankylosing spondylitis cause inflammation. Symptoms of inflammation include redness, warmth, swelling, and pain. In general, OA is degenerative, rather than inflammatory.

Inflammatory Arthritis

Inflammatory arthritis conditions often affect multiple joints in the body and can be systemic, affecting the entire body. RA is the most common type of inflammatory arthritis.

With RA, the synovium, which lines the joints, becomes inflamed. If left untreated, inflammatory arthritis can cause damage to cartilage, bone, tendons, and ligaments, eventually impairing the function of the affected joint.

Research shows 90% of people with RA will have some hand involvement, which can cause problems for activities of daily living (ADL).

RA tends to affect the metacarpophalangeal (MCP), proximal interphalangeal (PIP), and thumb interphalangeal (IP) joints.

  • The MCP joint, or the knuckle­, is where the finger joints meet the hand joints. At the MCP, the fingers bend and stretch and help you to pick up and hold on to objects.
  • The PIP joint is the first joint of the finger and is located between the other two bones of the finger. It can bend and extend.
  • The thumb IP joint has two bones, so it is only one joint. It is located at the tip of the finger closest to the fingertip.

With RA, you can experience hand involvement in one or more finger joints in both hands.

Osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis is a degenerative joint disease in which the cartilage between the joints wears down. Bones will rub together due to diminished cushioning. That rubbing leads to inflammation, stiffness, and pain.

Any joint can be affected by OA, including those in your hands. According to the Arthritis Foundation, about half of all women and one-quarter of men will experience OA in their hands by the time they are 85 years old.

Osteoarthritis in the hands affects the wrists, the DIP joints (at the fingertips), the PIP joints, and the basial joint (connecting the thumb and wrist).

In OA, bony nodules—called Heberden's nodes—can develop between the PIP and DIP joints of the fingers. Nodules at the PIP joint are called Bouchard’s nodes. Hand OA may cause pain, swelling, and a bump in the base of the thumb.

Hand OA may lead to difficulties with hand grip and pinch strength. It can cause pain with tasks that require hand and finger strength, like opening a jar or turning a key.

Preventing Arthritis in Your Hands

Some risk factors for arthritis are not modifiable—such as aging and family history. But there are also risk factors within your control. You can reduce your risk for arthritis conditions by managing those. You will also want to take preventive measures to reduce the risk of your existing arthritis condition affecting your hands.

Maintaining Good Health

If you have not developed arthritis in your hands, there are some things you can do to prevent damage to the joints of your hands, wrists, and fingers.

Follow Your Arthritis Treatment Plan

Your arthritis treatment plan is vital, especially if you have RA and another type of inflammatory arthritis. One of the main goals of an RA treatment plan is to maintain joint function, including and especially of the joints of your hands.

Make sure you take the medications your practitioner prescribes and follow all the instructions you have been given. Many of these medicines decrease inflammation and prevent damage throughout the body, including the hands, wrists, and fingers.

See Your Healthcare Provider Regularly

Make sure you keep your appointments and see your healthcare provider regularly. Talk to your practitioner about any changes in hand symptoms and joint function.

Let your healthcare provider know about any swelling, stiffness, or pain in your hands and if you experience function difficulties, such as with turning doorknobs, opening jars, or gripping objects.

Don't Smoke

Smoking can increase your risk for RA, and it makes the disease worse for people who already have RA. Research also connects smoking to OA of the hands, knees, hips, and spine. If you are a smoker, you should quit right away to reduce your risk for both OA and RA.

Eat a Healthy Diet

The Arthritis Foundation recommends eating a “diet rich in fruits, vegetables, fish, nuts and beans, and low in processed foods and saturated fat” to prevent inflammation and improve joint symptoms.

A Mediterranean diet is a type of anti-inflammatory diet that can help manage inflammation associated with both RA and OA.

Avoiding Injury

Putting stress on the hand joints can cause wear and tear that eventually leads to OA. An injury can damage the cartilage in the joints, and injured joints are more likely to develop arthritis. You may not have symptoms until many years later. 

Ways to avoid hand injury include:

  • Hand exercises: Exercising the hands can keep joints, ligaments, and tendons flexible and increase synovial fluid.
  • Protection when playing sports: Hand and wrist injuries are common in sports, including basketball, tennis, and baseball. Protective equipment may help prevent injuries.
  • Practicing job safety: If your job requires pushing, pulling, and lifting, you should take precautions to avoid joint injury. Make sure you are using appropriate safety equipment, using tools correctly, and practicing lifting safely. Avoiding lifting heavy items and any lifting that puts a strain on hands and fingers.
  • Practicing good ergonomics: Computer jobs can also put a strain on your hand and finger joints. You can reduce some of this by using an ergonomic keyboard and mouse. Consider trying dictation software to reduce the constant work of your hands.
  • Splinting and bracing: Make use of splints and braces to reduce injury when doing repetitive hand activities or if you are experiencing pain and inflammation in your hand, finger, or wrist joints.

When to See a Healthcare Provider

Some telltale signs that arthritis has affected your hands include swelling, stiffness, tenderness, and joint pain of your wrists, hands, and fingers.

You should see a healthcare provider when:

  • Home treatments aren’t helping. If you have tried ice, heat therapy, over-the-counter pain (OTC) relievers, and rest without adequate relief, it is a good idea to make an appointment with your practitioner to determine the source of your hand symptoms.
  • You have pain in multiple joints. Conditions like RA make several of your joints hurts. So, if you are experiencing pain in other joints, in addition to your hands, it is a good idea to call your healthcare provider and get in for an appointment.
  • Your hand joints hurt a lot. If you have severe hand, finger, or wrist pain, this is another reason to call your practitioner.
  • You have warmth and redness. Symptoms like redness and warmth are signs of inflammation in the joints and need to be checked out.
  • You have gradual pain and stiffness. Any type of joint pain—whether in your hands or elsewhere in your body—that progresses slowly could be linked to an underlying medical illness

Preventing Flare-Ups

An arthritis flare-up (also called a flare) is a sudden increase in joint pain, swelling, stiffness, and tenderness. In addition to joint symptoms, flares may also cause severe fatigue and a general unwell feeling.

Because flares are never pleasant or easy, you will need to do what you can to prevent them by avoiding triggers that cause flares. Triggers can involve overdoing activities, stress, and not eating healthy.

Medications

The single most important thing you can do to prevent flare-ups is to take your arthritis medications on time and correctly. Try not to skip doses—use a timer, pillbox, or another method to help you stay on track.

Call your healthcare provider if you think you might feel a flare starting. They might be able to adjust your treatment plan to get symptoms managed.

Anti-inflammatory medications are commonly recommended for managing inflammation caused by arthritic conditions, including OA and RA. There are two main types of anti-inflammatory medicines: nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and corticosteroids.

NSAIDs

NSAIDs like ibuprofen, aspirin, and naproxen are available without a prescription. However, your practitioner can prescribe stronger versions if they feel you need them to better manage inflammation and pain.

Corticosteroids

Sometimes called steroids, corticosteroids are man-made drugs that resemble a hormone called cortisol that is naturally produced in the adrenal glands. They are available in pill form, as an injection, and as topical pain relievers.

Corticosteroids work by decreasing inflammation throughout the body, which can reduce joint pain, stiffness, swelling, and tenderness of the joints. Corticosteroids need to be prescribed by your healthcare provider, although some over-the-counter topical pain relievers contain low amounts.

Diet

There is no clear evidence that diet can improve arthritis symptoms. But many people with arthritis say they feel better when they cut out certain foods. Foods considered inflammatory include processed and fast foods, red meats, and sugary desserts.

An anti-inflammatory diet might help reduce inflammation and improve symptoms of arthritis. Foods considered anti-inflammatory include oily fish, fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts and seeds, olive oil, some spices (like ginger and turmeric), and probiotics and prebiotics.

Hand Exercises

Hand, wrist, and finger pain can be frustrating and make it harder to perform basic tasks, including using a computer, preparing meals, getting dressed, and cleaning your home. Hand exercises can help improve hand function and are easy to do.

Here are five hand exercises recommended by Havard Medical School. Start these exercises slowly and ease off if you experience pain. For each exercise, hold the position for 5–10 seconds. Do each set 10 times, three times per day.

  1. Wrist extension and flexion: Place your forearm on a flat surface on a rolled-up towel with your palm down, hanging at the edge of the table. Move the hand upward until you feel the stretch. Return to the starting position and repeat the same motions with the elbow bent at your side, palm up.
  2. Wrist supination/pronation: Standing or sitting with your arm at your side, elbow bent at 90 degrees and palm facing down, rotate the forearm so the palm faces up and then down. 
  3. Wrist ulnar/radial deviation: Start by supporting your forearm on a table with a rolled-up towel for padding, thumb upward. As an alternative, you can use your knee for support. To do the exercise, move the wrist up and then down through its full range of motion.
  4. Thumb flexion/extension: Start with your thumb in an outward position. Then move the thumb across your palm and back to the start position.
  5. Hand/finger tendon glide: Start this exercise with your fingers extended straight out. Then, make a hook fist, hold for 5–10 seconds, and then return to a straight hand. Next, make a full fist, hold it for 5–10 seconds, and return to a straight hand. Last, make a straight fist, hold for 5–10 seconds, and then return to a straight hand.

Supportive Devices

Supportive devices, including hand splints and compression gloves, can position joints to reduce pain and extend your range of motion.

Hand Splints

Different types of hand splints and finger splints can be worn to reduce pain and support your hand during tasks that require you to use your hands, wrists, and fingers.

One study reported in 2014 found short-term, nighttime use of splinting of the DIP joint was a safe and simple way to reduce pain and improve mobility in the joint.

A newer study—this one reported in 2018—found that splinting could manage hand and wrist function in people who experience RA of their hands. Researchers found that hand and wrist stabilization helped with improving function, grip, and manual dexterity.

Compression Gloves

Compression gloves can be an alternative to hand splints, or they can be used at night after splints have been removed. These tight-fitting and flexible gloves can reduce hand pain and stiffness and improve hand function.

Compression gloves are safe and commonly used. However, there is little research that confirms compression gloves can be effective.

Stress Management

Reducing stress can help prevent flares, manage arthritis, and reduce the length of flares. People with arthritis can make use of any number of stress relief activities to keep arthritis symptoms at bay.

Stress relief techniques include:

If you find that stress relief activities are not helping or you are struggling to cope with the challenges of arthritis, ask your healthcare provider for a recommendation to a mental health therapist who can be a resource for finding ways to better cope. 

A Word From Verywell

The outlook for most people with hand arthritis is good. If you are at risk of hand arthritis, pay attention to preventative strategies so you can reduce the likelihood of developing it.

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18 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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