Pain of the hand and wrist are common occurrences. The hand is the most active appendage in the body and moves at the wrist to carry out tasks throughout most of the day. Any problem affecting the hand may also involve the wrist. But sometimes the cause of hand pain stems from the wrist. Treating hand and wrist pain largely depends on the cause. Pain is only a symptom and while it can be relieved, the cause of the problem needs to be attended to in order to prevent the pain from persisting or worsening. In modern life, pain of the hand and wrist is often due to overuse and strain.
We live in a world where our hands are performing repetitive actions throughout the day. Be it typing on a keyboard, clicking away on a mobile phone or writing, our hands have become one of the primary ways in which we communicate with a digitally-connected world. Therefore hand and wrist pain are common in occupations requiring repetitive actions. It is not only about technology. Manual labor can be just as much a strain on the hand and wrist.
It is always advisable to seek medical advice about hand and wrist pain. It could be a serious condition that needs extensive medical treatment and management.
Icing the Wrist and Hand
Using ice is one of the most effective ways of treating an acute injury. It is an effective means of reducing inflammation within the first 72 hours of injury. Although inflammation is the body’s response to tissue injury, it hampers healing and leads to pain and swelling. Cold therapy can help in minimizing the inflammation. Ice should never be applied directly onto the skin. Instead it should be placed in a thin cloth which can then be rubbed over the hand and wrist at the site of the pain and/or over the swelling. Immersing the hand in cold water can also be useful but ice packs are the best option. Icing can be done for 20 minutes at a time, several times in a day for up to 72 hours after the injury.
Applying Heat to the Hand
Heat is also helpful in treating hand and wrist pain. However, it should not be used immediately after an injury as it can worsen the condition. Icing of the hand and wrist should first be done within 48 to 72 hours after the injury. Heat can be used thereafter. A hot water bottle, heat pad or warm compress can be useful for applying heat therapy to the affected hand. It is also helpful in chronic and repetitive hand and wrist pain. The heat should be tolerable and should not burn the skin. It can be left on the hand and wrist for long periods until the heat dissipates from the hot water bottle or heat pad.
Immobilize the Hand and Wrist
Reducing the ability of the hand to move can also help in easing pain and speed up healing of an injury. It is difficult to immobilize the hand completely as it is such an important part of the body that needs to be used for even the smallest of tasks. Even if the hand is not completely immobilized, its movement can be restricted significantly to allow it to heal. Hand and wrist straps are ideal options for minimizing movement. These straps are specially designed to fit the contours of the hand and forearm. A brace is less flexible and may at times be a better option. Alternatively a bandage can be draped over the hand and wrist. However, straps and bandages should not be used if there is an open wound.
Gently Massage the Hand and Forearm
Sometimes a gentle massage or rub can help with relieving muscle strain, one of the most common causes of hand pain. However, it should not be done forcefully as it can injure the tissue further and worsen the problem. Simple slow movements in a line or circle are the ideal approach to massaging the area and should extend from the fingertips all the way to the elbow. Heat before and after the massage, as well as muscle rubs can be used for better results. If there is an open wound or a bone fracture is suspected, then massaging should be strictly avoided. Never massage an area that is swollen, where the skin is red and feels hot to touch. Stop massaging immediately if the pain starts to intensify.
Muscle Rubs for the Hand
A number of over-the-counter (OTC) muscle rubs can be used. Some simply increase the blood flow to the hand and cause a warm feeling. Others are anti-inflammatories or may have mild pain-relieving properties. Although muscle rubs are safe to use, some can in fact worsen the pain. Therefore it is important to speak to a doctor or pharmacist about the best option for your specific condition. These products should only be used if there is no open wound or bone fracture. The muscle rub can be applied to the affected area or gently massaged into the skin. But remember that persistent pain that is continuing for weeks or months needs to be further assessed by a doctor.
Exercise and Occupational Therapy
It may not always be possible to stop using the hand or avoid activities that may cause the pain. Two important considerations in these cases is:
- exercises to strengthen the hand and improve flexibility at the wrist joint, and
- finding better ways to conduct physical activities without straining the hand or wrist joint.
A physical therapist will treat your hand condition if it is due to musculoskeletal problems, and show you exercises to strengthen the hand and wrist joint. These exercises should be done as prescribed by the physical therapist. It is not only about easing the pain but also about preventing future episodes. Therefore the exercises should be carried out daily, even when you are pain free.
An occupational therapist can assess your work situation and advise you on how to improve the way you use your hand and arm while minimizing strain. Ergonomics is a field dedicated to better ways to carry out activities and use equipment for this purpose. Where possible, it is advisable to use ergonomically-designed tools, equipment and furniture. This will minimize injury to the arm, wrist and hand.