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Around two-thirds of men and women will eventually develop osteoarthritis that can be seen on an X-ray in their hands. While this common type of arthritis isn’t curable, it is treatable—and many types of treatment can relieve pain effectively.
Osteoarthritis is a degenerative disease, which means it worsens over time as a result of regular “wear and tear” on the joints, in addition to natural changes that occur within the body.
As we age, our cartilage accumulates damage and can thin. This creates instability between joints, which leads to pain, swelling, inflammation, loss of function, and deformities. Small boney spurs, called osteophytes, often form around the joints as well, causing the affected area to appear bonier or nodular.
Hand osteoarthritis can make even the simplest daily tasks difficult, from getting dressed to turning doorknobs. Too many people try to adapt to a lower quality of life since the disease isn’t curable. But there’s no reason to suffer—multiple treatments are available, with several more under development and further study.
While you can’t stop your body from aging, you can better understand your risk factors and talk with a rheumatologist about ways to decrease pain, restore function, and improve your overall well-being.
What increases the risk of hand osteoarthritis?
Over 32 million adults in the U.S. are affected by osteoarthritis, but we still haven’t determined what causes it. However, we have identified common risk factors based on shared characteristics among patients:
- Age: Hand osteoarthritis is rare in people under 40 but becomes more widespread in people aged 50 or above.
- Genetics: People who have family members with osteoarthritis in their hands are more likely to develop the condition.
- Obesity: Research continues to show a link between obesity and chronic inflammation, which likely plays a role in the degradation of cartilage, leaving hand joints more prone to arthritis.
- Overuse: Your risk rises if you constantly put pressure on your wrists or finger joints, especially during repetitive tasks or from carrying heavy objects.
- Prior injuries: People who have fractured or dislocated joints in their hands or fingers are more likely to develop osteoarthritis in their hands.
- Race: Hand osteoarthritis is more common in Caucasian and some Asian populations.
- Sex: Women are more likely to develop hand osteoarthritis, possibly because protective effects from estrogen decrease with age, leaving joints more vulnerable to degeneration.
Pain, stiffness, and reduced flexibility in the thumbs or fingers are the first signs of hand osteoarthritis. If you have one or more risk factors and are experiencing pain and poor grip strength in your hands, visit your doctor.
To diagnose osteoarthritis, they’ll rule out other possible conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis, which can have similar symptoms but is caused by an autoimmune disorder that causes inflammation that destroys joints.
Hand osteoarthritis is typically confirmed after a physical examination, an X-ray showing cartilage and bone damage, and an evaluation of your medical history. From there, your provider will recommend one or multiple treatment strategies to help you manage pain and discomfort.
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Treatments for hand osteoarthritis.
Early treatment, including physical therapy, is the best way to minimize pain and maximize function in your hands. Patients who have hand osteoarthritis should always perform strengthening exercises, with or without additional medical treatment.
We recommend working with a physical therapist who specializes in hand therapy to strengthen the joints. It’s like giving yourself a natural, invisible bandage that provides support, reduces pain, and increases function and range of motion in your hands
Additional treatment options include:
- Braces or orthotics to provide ongoing structured support, especially for the thumb
- Colchicine, an anti-inflammatory drug that may decrease inflammation and pain in osteoarthritic joints
- Corticosteroid injections or oral tablets to ease pain and swelling
- Methotrexate, an immunosuppressive drug that can reduce inflammation and joint damage, and is used to treat other rheumatic diseases
- Screening for diseases that increase risk for hand osteoarthritis, including iron overloaded states, such as in hemochromatosis, and Vitamin K deficiency
- Supplements containing chondroitin, a natural substance within your cartilage that can help improve function and reduce stiffness and pain
- Topical and oral non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) to decrease pain and swelling
- Turmeric, a spice that contains curcumin, which can help decrease inflammation as a supplement or when added to food
Everyone responds differently to treatment. We individualize treatment plans for each patient to ensure prescription medications won’t interfere with treatments or supplements you use for other health conditions.
Related reading: Fight Harmful Inflammation With These 10 Healthy Eating Tips
A word about turmeric.
As with any supplement, talk with your doctor before adding turmeric to your diet.
Although much remains to be studied about this supplement, it has been used for centuries in both Ayurvedic and traditional Chinese medicine to treat pain. Many studies have shown it to be safe and effective in relieving arthritic pain.
Aim to take around 500 milligrams of turmeric up to three times a day via capsule or integrate it into your foods. If you buy supplements, ensure they’re from a reputable company. Turmeric supplements are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), so the production and full list of ingredients may be questionable.
Related reading: Effectively Managing Geriatric Arthritis
Improving future hand osteoarthritis care through research.
We still have a lot to learn about hand osteoarthritis, and researchers are working to address this knowledge gap. As we continue to learn more about the causes of osteoarthritis, we’ll be able to develop more accurate treatments as well as prevention tactics.
I recently co-authored a review of current research on risk factors for hand osteoarthritis. These findings point to increased evidence of a link between osteoarthritis and:
- Alcohol use
- Cardiovascular disease
- Hormones in fat cells
A futuristic area of research is in the WNT gene pathway, which helps regulate cell development and communication; it is linked to disease progression, including cancer and Alzheimer’s disease in addition to arthritis. New therapies targeting the WNT pathway are currently being studied, and I’m excited to see how they might improve patients’ pain in the future.
For now, I encourage all patients to make the most of treatment that’s currently available. Too often patients accept their hand discomfort without mentioning it to their doctor. Untreated hand osteoarthritis can lead to more pain and less function over time.
Whether you’re using a phone, drinking a cup of coffee, or brushing your teeth, everyday tasks don’t have to be painful! You have options to improve your quality of life. Schedule an appointment with your doctor to find out what will work best for you.