Getting a grip on hand osteoarthritis

Everyone experiences the occasional painful hands and sore fingers, but when osteoarthritis strikes, it can put a hold on many aspects of your life.


“As osteoarthritis progresses, you may lose some hand mobility, like the ability to grasp and hold objects,” says Dr. Robert Shmerling, clinical chief of rheumatology at Harvard-affiliated Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and senior faculty editor at Harvard Health Publishing. “Over time, osteoarthritis can make the joints deformed, so it’s harder to open and close your hands.”


Wear and tear


Osteoarthritis, the most common joint disorder, is known as “wear and tear” arthritis. It causes the protective cartilage on the ends of your bones to break down and wear away. Over time, the bones in the joint rub together and trigger pain, swelling, and inflammation.


Osteoarthritis most commonly affects three parts of the hand:


the base of the thumb, where the thumb and wrist join


the joint closest to the fingertip


the middle joint of the finger


Flare-ups tend to come and go, and the severity can range from dull aches to sharp pains. It may sound like urban legend, but changes in weather, such as humidity and barometric pressure, can trigger symptoms in some people, although it’s not known why. Time of day also can play a role, as stiffness tends to be worse in the morning.


What increases your risk for hand osteoarthritis? Father Time is the main culprit — about 25% of all men experience some degree of hand osteoarthritis pain and stiffness by age 85. But other factors can play a part, such as a family history of osteoarthritis and past hand injuries, especially fractures near a joint.


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