Hand therapy for hand osteoarthritis

Hand osteoarthritis is inflammation in the joints of the hands or fingers. The most common symptoms are pain, stiffness, aching joints and swelling.

Morning stiffness is common and the condition can lead to difficulties doing activities such as turning taps, keys and opening jars. Symptoms are likely to get worse over time, but they can also come and go.

Real-life causes

“I’m over the age of 60.”
“I broke my hand/one of my fingers in the past.”
“I regularly use hand tools in my job.”


If the pain, stiffness or swelling continues or gets worse, it’s important you seek medical attention. Your doctor will examine your hands and ask questions about your symptoms and family history. An x-ray may show degeneration in joints.

Hand osteoarthritis commonly occurs in three places:

  • The base of your thumb
  • Joints closest to your fingertips
  • The middle joint of a finger


In addition to the pain medications your doctor may have recommended, your hand therapist will assess your condition and recommend specific exercises to help maintain movement. They may also suggest supplements such as glucosamine and chondroitin.

Your hand therapist will also show you ways to carry out everyday tasks to reduce pain and care for your joints, for example, carrying your grocery bags with your forearm rather than your fingers.

Your hand therapist may fashion a custom-made splint designed for use with certain activities or which can be worn during the night to reduce pain.


The main goals in hand osteoarthritis treatment are to relieve pain and restore function – it cannot be cured. The advice given by your doctor and hand therapist will help you effectively manage and reduce the symptoms of the condition.

Do you need surgery for hand osteoarthritis?

If treatments are unsuccessful or your symptoms make it hard for you to use your hand, your doctor or hand therapist may recommend surgery.

One surgical option for hand osteoarthritis is arthroplasty. This involves removing the damaged joint and replacing it with an artificial one.

Post-operative care

Following surgery, you’ll be discharged from hospital with your hand supported in a cast. This is generally changed to a splint and worn for approximately six weeks. It’s important to keep your hand elevated at this time to reduce swelling and bruising.

You’ll need to go back to your surgeon after 10-14 days to have your stitches removed. The focus of your hand therapist initially will be on managing pain and massaging the hand or finger to ease muscle pain or spasm. They’ll then begin a range of motion and, eventually, strengthening exercises.

Possible complications of hand osteoarthritis

  • Rapid breakdown of cartilage leading to loose material
  • Stress fractures/hairline cracks
  • Bone death
  • Bleeding inside the joint
  • Infection in the joint
  • Deterioration of tendons and ligaments
  • Surgical complications