Healthy Hands: Strategies for strong, pain-free hands

Beneath the skin, your hands are an intricate architecture of tendons, joints, ligaments, nerves, and bones. Each of these structures is vulnerable to damage from illness or injury. If your hands hurt, even simple tasks can become a painful ordeal. This report describes the causes and treatments for many conditions that can cause hand pain. It also features information on hand exercises, as well as handy tools and other gadgets that take strain off your hands.

Healthy Hands: Strategies for strong, pain-free hands Cover

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Beneath the skin, your hands are an intricate architecture of tendons, joints, ligaments, nerves, and bones. Each of these structures is vulnerable to damage from illness or injury. If your hands hurt, even simple tasks can become a painful ordeal. Arthritis can make it difficult to carry a shopping bag. Carpal tunnel syndrome can interfere with your work and hobbies. Hand or finger deformities can make basic self-care routines such as getting dressed difficult.

This report describes the causes and treatments for many conditions that can cause hand pain, such as tendon injuries, ganglion cysts, and a disfiguring condition called Dupuytren's contracture. It also features information on hand exercises, as well as handy tools and other gadgets that take strain off your hands. The special bonus section describes recent advances in artificial joint replacement, which holds promise for easing the pain and loss of function for people with severe forms of hand arthritis.

Prepared by the editors of Harvard Health Publications in consultation with Barry P. Simmons, M.D. Associate Professor of Orthopedic Surgery, Chief, Hand/Upper Extremity Service, Brigham and Women’s Hospital; and Joanne P. Bosch, P.T., C.H.T., Clinical Specialist in Hand Management, Rehabilitation Services, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston, MA. 42 pages. (2015)

  • The healthy hand
    • Hand structure and physiology
    • Hand doctors and other clinicians
  • Arthritis of the hand
    • Osteoarthritis
    • Rheumatoid arthritis
    • Other types of arthritis that affect the hands
  • Special bonus section: Advances in artificial joints for the hand
    • Barbara’s story: Surgery for basal joint arthritis
  • Tendon trouble
    • De Quervain’s tendonitis (or tenosynovitis)
    • Trigger finger
    • Tennis elbow
    • Golfer’s elbow
    • Dupuytren’s disease
    • Ganglion cysts
  • Exercise for the hand
    • Range-of-motion exercises
    • Strengthening exercises
    • Stretching exercises
    • Resisted isometrics
  • Carpal tunnel syndrome and other “pinched” nerves
    • Carpal tunnel syndrome
    • Anne’s story: Coping with repetitive stress injury
    • Cubital tunnel syndrome
    • Radial tunnel syndrome
  • Traumatic hand and wrist injuries
    • Wrist sprains
    • Finger sprains, jams, and dislocations
    • Tendon injuries
    • Fractures
    • Finger amputations
  • Getting a grip: Handy gadgets and advice
  • Resources
  • Glossary

Between her full-time job, evening classes, and homework, 30-year-old Anne was logging an average of 45 to 50 hours per week on the computer. As a desktop publishing specialist, much of her computer time was spent using graphics programs, which required extensive use of the mouse. Her right hand, the one she used on the mouse, began to ache, and the pain soon spread to her forearm. This is Anne’s story:

After I described my symptoms to my general practitioner, she referred me to a therapist. During the assessment, the therapist touched different parts of my hand and arm and asked about my symptoms, which included occasional numbness in my fingers. The pain in my hand had gotten worse—it was like a constant, low buzz I couldn’t ignore. I also noticed that my fine motor coordination had declined. I like to paint and draw, but holding the brushes and pencils wasn’t comfortable. I also had some difficulty writing with pens.

The therapist recommended ice to ease the discomfort, as well as an ergonomic evaluation of my workspace. The computer workstations I was using at the time weren’t ideal. For instance, where I took classes, the monitors were mounted below a piece of glass on the desktop, so you had to look down into the desk to see them. Fortunately, I was able to get a free ergonomic evaluation of my workstation at the university where I worked.

I learned how to correctly adjust the height of my chair, my monitor, and the angle of the monitor to put less stress on all my joints. They also set me up with an adjustable keyboard tray, which you slide out from under your desk and position in a way that allows you to keep your wrists and forearms straight.

I experimented with different setups for my mouse as well, such as using the opposite hand, using a different style of mouse, and putting the mouse on a keyboard bridge. The bridge, which sits up over the number pad on the keyboard, allows you to keep your hand closer to the center of your body, which is less stressful for your lower arm and hand.

After about two months, I noticed a big improvement. Now I’m careful not to overuse my hands and to always make sure I’m keeping my wrists and the rest of my body properly aligned to avoid a relapse.

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