Do You Suffer from Rheumatoid Arthritis?

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Hand Therapy Can Help

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) – one of the most common types of arthritis – affects more than 1.5 million adults in the United States. RA is a systemic inflammatory disorder that typically affects the small joints in your hands and feet, but unlike other forms of arthritis, RA also is an autoimmune disease. With RA, the immune system attacks the body’s tissues specifically the thin membranes that line the joints – putting the entire body at risk for joint inflammation.

When Left Untreated

A chronic disease, if left untreated, RA can cause complications to the body’s organs, as well as deformity of the hands and feet.

“With RA you see a lot of deformities with the hand and wrists,” says Maria Satterfield, OTR/L, CHT, CLT, CEAS, hand therapist, Community Hospital long Beach. “The fingers begin turning toward the pinky because of the imbalance of the muscles tendons and ligaments that get overstretched.”

Although there is no known cure for RA, the certified hand therapists at Community Hospital Long Beach (CHLB) are now taking an aggressive approach to preventing long-term complications and deformities through early diagnosis and the use of hand therapy.

The certified hand therapists at CHLB are occupational therapists who specialize in the treatment of diseases or injuries involving the shoulder, elbow, wrist, hand and fingers, such as rheumatoid arthritis.

“When there is constant movement the joints get inflamed. People with RA often have flairs of inflammation, because their hands are used so frequently. Hand therapy is not a cure for arthritis, but it’s a way to help the patient understand what they should expect with the disease, how to manage the inflammation and stiffness and learn joint protection,” says Satterfield.

Therapists like Satterfield work closely with each patient to design a care plan to meet their individual goals and needs. “We utilize various equipment and techniques to develop home programs for each patient that allow them to maintain hand function and improve quality of life.”

Therapeutic Treatments

Techniques and tips used to help patients manage their symptoms:

  • Therapeutic exercise including work simulation and progression
    • Exercises that focus on flexibility, strength, endurance, coordination and work-related functions
  • Modalities for pain management
    • Ultrasound: uses sound waves to generate heat within a body part to help loosen the tissues and help them respond better to therapy or exercises
    • Electrical stimulation: uses electricity to help alleviate pain
    • Iontophoresis: form of transdermal drug delivery that utilizes electrical current to drive or push ionized drugs through the skin’s outermost layer used to reduce inflammation
    • Fluidotherapy: fluidized therapy (Fluidotherapy®) is a high-intensity heat modality consisting of a dry whirlpool of finely divided solid particles suspended in a heated air stream, the mixture having the properties of a liquid
    • Paraffin: home wax treatment that applies deep heat to relieve pain and stiffness
  • Energy conservation
  • Body mechanics
  • Patient education on preventative measures and self-management of symptoms, such as:
    • Gloves in winter time to prevent stiffness
    • Using adaptive equipment that is less stressful on the hands, like using an electric can opener instead of a hand opener
    • Using an over the shoulder purse/bag rather than a hand purse/bag
    • Hot and cold packs
  • Custom splinting

The certified hand therapists at CHLB specialize in casting and fabricating dynamic and static splints. Custom splinting helps correct hand deformities by minimizing movement of the joint and keeping the hand correctly aligned.

Candidates for Hand Therapy

People with RA are not the only patients who can benefit from hand therapy. Those with injuries or limitations in function from conditions involving the upper extremity can also be candidates for hand therapy, including:

  • Fractures
  • Sprains and strains
  • Overuse syndrome
  • Dupuytren's contractures
  • Tendonitis
  • Surgical repair
  • Arthritis
  • Carpal tunnel syndrome
  • Nerve injuries
  • Amputation

If you have rheumatoid arthritis and are considering hand therapy, contact Rehabilitation & Physical Therapy Services at Community Hospital Long Beach and ask to speak to a certified hand therapist.