Don’t let debilitating hand pain affect your independence

How many times a day does the average person use their hands? From hitting the snooze button in the morning to setting the alarm at night, hands rarely remain still, constantly moving through both simple and complex motions as part of daily living.

Any kind of deficiency, caused by an injury, surgery or neurological event, such as a stroke, can significantly affect one’s daily function, explained Kathy Ramaekers, an occupational therapist and certified hand therapist with Hillcrest Physical Therapy in Bellevue.

Such is why Ramaekers wishes more physicians would refer patients to physical or occupational therapy when patients first complain about pain and/or movement limitations with their hands.

“Most people just accept some pain or stiffness as a normal part of aging and wear and tear on the body,” she said. “But that isn’t necessarily true. In fact, there is a lot a hand therapist can do to alleviate pain and improve hand function.”

Each hand contains 27 major and minor bones that are wrapped together by ligaments, tendons, muscles, nerves and arteries. All work in concert to perform activities like tying a shoe, opening a jar, or putting together a model airplane, so when something limits one’s use of their hands, it can have a profound effect on her or his entire life.

“As individuals age, learning to live without functioning hands is challenging physically, mentally, emotionally and socially,” Ramaekers said. “A hand therapist works to get his or her patients back to as much normal function as possible. Hand function is key to independent living.”

Even though complaints may be localized to the hand, Ramaekers says all hand therapy treatments should be preceded by an assessment of the entire arm extremity – from the neck and shoulder down through the arm and fingers.

“I’m looking at alignment, position, strength and flexibility, range of motion and grip strength,” she said.

As the provider of choice for multiple orthopedic physicians focusing on the hand, Ramaekers recognizes such assessments would also identify inflammation, swelling or other indications of medical conditions, such as arthritis, which can be affecting the hand.

Once a cause of pain or loss of function is determined, a treatment plan is formed. In addition to exercises and therapies such as massage or ultrasound, a hand therapist can suggest compensating strategies and adaptive equipment.

Compensating strategies may include selecting shoes with Velcro or magnetic straps that don’t require knot tying, learning to do certain tasks with the other hand or choosing shirts without buttons. Adaptive equipment prescribed may include an appliance that opens jars, handles that make gripping and pulling easier (such as seat belts), or specially designed silverware or writing tools.

Hand therapists will also work with individual clients to devise strategies that help them alleviate stress on the hands, such as carrying items with the arms and not the hands.

To learn more about how a hand therapist can help improve function while alleviating discomfort, pain and inflammation in the hands and arms, contact the rehabilitation team at Hillcrest Physical Therapy at (402) 682-4210.