Hand exercises can improve grip strength, function, pain and fatigue in women with hand osteoarthritis

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New research led by Ingvild Kjeken, Professor in Occupational Therapy at the University of Oslo, Norway, has shown that hand exercises can significantly help women with the pain of hand osteoarthritis, improve grip strength, hand function and also fatigue.

Osteoarthritis is commonly called “wear and tear” of the joints and happens when the cartilage that surrounds the bone ends and normally protects the joints from impact becomes worn and thinner. This can cause the joints to feel stiff and painful and there can also be swelling of the joints and difficulty using them. In the hands, osteoarthritis often affects the small finger joints and the joint at the bottom of the thumbs and can cause pain when using the hands for example when writing or doing up buttons, picking up cups, when peeling vegetables or after gardening. Grip strength can be reduced making it difficult to turn taps or open jars and sometimes the pain can disturb sleep.

In professor Kjeken’s study, 80 women of average age around 60, with osteoarthritis of the hands were divided into 2 groups. Both groups were assessed before the start and their hand function and grip strength as well as measures of pain were recorded. Both groups were given advice on hand osteoarthritis by an occupational therapist and one group received an exercise programme as well. Exercises were aimed at improving grip strength and increasing the flexibility of the fingers, for example performing exercises with elastic bands used to provide resistance to the thumb to improve muscle strength, and by squeezing a 7cm rubber ball. Patients were also telephoned 8 times in the 3 month study period by their therapist to check on their progress and give reminders.  Participants were asked to exercise 3 times per week for 3 months with each exercise being performed 10-15 times. Before the study, participants were asked to identify several activities they found difficult because of hand pain.

Women who completed the exercise programme were much more likely to notice an improvement in these functional activities after the study than those who had only information provided. Exercise participants also had less pain and improved grip strength and surprisingly reported less fatigue.

Hand exercises are very easy to do and simply regularly squeezing a soft rubber ball may make a difference to hand function and pain. No other special equipment is needed but people with arthritis should seek medical advice prior to starting a new type of exercise. They may wish to find or ask for a referral to an occupational therapist, a physiotherapist or hand therapist who will be able to help them with an exercise programme.

As part of our self-management programme, we encourage our members to do regular exercise which can help alleviate the pain and stiffness associated with arthritis.

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