Hand & Finger Arthritis - Self Help Ideas

Photo by Matthias Zomer : www.pexels.com
This article is a summary of everything I've learnt over the last 25 years about self help treatments for osteoarthritic hand pain. 

The information is also presented in video format below.

Osteoarthritis is the most common degenerative joint condition that we see. If you want to know more about the specifics of this condition then I’ve written all about Osteoarthritis here.

Amongst all the joints commonly affected by OA, the thumb base joints are right up there with the hips and knees and so I've also written a separate article to specifically address thumb arthritis here

This article is going to focus on osteoarthritis affecting the small joints of the hands and fingers. What generally gets referred to as Nodal Arthritis, because people with the condition often get bony thickening or nodes over the finger joints. These arthritic thickenings are not soft swellings, ganglions or other cysts which can also be seen commonly around the wrists and fingers. These nodal thickenings are firm and bony in nature and can be see clearly on an X-Ray of a typical osteoarthritic hand. 

Nodal Arthritis 

The thickenings over the very end joints (DIP joints) are called Heberden's Nodes and the thickenings over the middle finger joints (PIP joints) are called Bouchard's Nodes. You could also have bony thickenings over the knuckle joints (MCP joints) but these are less common. 

Its important to note that this article assumes that you've already been diagnosed with nodal hand osteoarthritis. If you haven't been diagnosed, and you have symptoms of hand and finger pain and stiffness, then please get checked our first because there are other conditions that can cause similar symptoms, such as Rheumatoid Arthritis, Gout, Diabetic Cheiroarthopathy, Scleroderma, Haemochromatosis, Peripheral Neuropathy and Raynaud's, amongst other conditions. Usually a simple blood test, along with an X-Ray will help to confirm the diagnosis. 

Self Help Treatments for Nodal Hand Arthritis 

1) Wraps and Splints 

If you have 1 or 2 affected fingers then you could try a simple elasticated finger splint. A single finger sleeve or a pair of ‘mouses trousers’ can help support the finger joints in a comfortable position and can help with arthritic finger joints which might have flared up and become swollen and painful. 

Finger Sleeve                                          Mouses Trousers
Used alongside anti inflammatory tablets or a rubbing gel, a splint can often calm down a flared up finger joint. Just make sure you check with a pharmacist before using anti-inflammatories as not everyone can take them. 

Anti-Inflammatory Gel

An alternative to the splints is an elasticated wrap such as Coban. It comes if different sizes but the 2.5cm (1inch) width is perfect for finger joints. Just cut a length of about 10-15cm (4-6 inches) and then carefully wrap it around the finger joint while applying some gentle stretch. Not too tight though. If your finger tip turns blue then take it off and start again but less tightly! Also note that it contains latex so don't use Coban if you have a latex allergy.
Coban Wrap - Link to Product

Coban sticks to itself and at the end of the day you can take it off and reapply the same strip the next day. You can even wash it, so a roll can last for many months. It's a really versatile product that you can use in different lengths and different amounts of tension to suit your individual fingers. 

                           How to apply Coban to a finger Joint

Coban provides just enough support to be effective whilst still allowing a good amount of finger movement. It also helps cushion against those irritating knocks and bangs that can occur all too commonly when you've got a painful finger joint. Coban can help to settle a flared up joint but it can also be really helpful in the long term for those niggly arthritic fingers that are continually painful. 

Now if you've got hands where most of your finger joints are arthritic, then it might be too much trouble to use splints or apply Coban to every joint. In this case I would suggest using a paddle splint at night and when resting during the day. Something like this will support all of the finger joints in a comfortable position while you are inn-active. The one below is flexible and the position of the fingers can be adjusted to suit you.

Hand Resting Splint

2) Therapeutic Heat

Another thing worth trying if you have multiple finger joints affected is the use of therapeutic heat. Now you could use a hot pack wrapped around your hands or a heat lamp but I can suggest a better way. When I first qualified many years ago we used to use a wax bath to help people with hand arthritis. This was a large vat of paraffin wax which was warmed until the wax melted. 

A Therapy Department Wax Bath
You put your hands into the molten wax and it would set as soon as you took them out and form a warm skin of wax around your hands which would mould into all the nooks and crannies of your finger joints. 

You then sat around having a chat with the other 10 or 15 patients who were having the same treatment. After about 20 mins, you pealed off the wax and put it back in the vat where it melted again, ready for the next patient. 

You then spent another 20 mins doing some gentle exercises with your nice warm joints. This treatment was then repeated weekly, sometimes for many months, and whilst it certainly didn't cure the condition it did provide some therapeutic pain relief which patients found very helpful. 

A Small Modern Wax Bath - Link to Product

Now, for various reasons, not least infection control and cost, wax baths fell out of use in most therapy departments a long time ago but you can still buy small modern versions which are just big enough for  personal use. They come with everything you need to treat a pair of arthritic hands or feet.

If you want to try a cheaper Heath Robinson alternative to a wax bath then I've found that a similar effect can be gained by rubbing olive oil into your hands and then putting on a pair of rubber gloves or surgical type gloves. Then place your hands in a bowl of warm water for 20 mins. It's a bit more messy that paraffin wax but the effect is similar. 

3) Exercises

Gentle exercises for hand arthritis can definitely be a helpful treatment if you do them regularly. The essence of therapeutic hand exercises are about function rather than strength. Just squeezing balls or grip springs will most likely just irritate your hands. 

A suggested hand exercise programme

Instead look for activities which focus on dexterity and function. Such as moulding plasticine or therapeutic putty into different shapes, tying and untying knots in a shoe lace, picking up grains of rice or dried peas, shuffling and turning over playing cards, fastening and unfastening buttons, etc. Alternate different fingers with your thumbs. Don't just use your index fingers all the time. 

A Variety of Hand Dexterity Activities 

Playing with a rubicks cube can help move your wrist and fingers into all different directions, and its fun too! Put all these bits and bobs on a lap tray and fiddle with the various bits and pieces while watching TV. Its a great way to help maximise your hand function.

Rubiks Cube

It's also worth noting that if you have a hobby like knitting or craft work that is aggravating your hands then its probably because you are doing that particular repetitive movement for too long. You're going to need to reduce the time spent doing that hobby and instead use the time to vary your hand movements by doing some of the other activities and exercises that we've just talked about.

4) Aids and Adaptations

A lot of people with hand arthritis will also have problems with everyday tasks such as holding a pen, turning a key, opening jars & cans or even holding a knife and fork. Well there are lots of different aids and adaptations available now which can make these tasks much easier. There are rubber grips that slide over pens and keys to help make gripping them easier. 

There are thickened and angled cutlery handles, tools than make opening cans and jars much easier and even a gizmo that's helps you fasten buttons and pull zips, and new products seem to be springing up almost every week online. And many of these can make a huge difference to those everyday tasks that people with hand arthritis can really struggle with.


So to summarise, in my experience these simple treatments that we've discussed can make a real difference to the daily pains and stiffness of hand and finger arthritis but they do need to done regularly. They aren't going to cure your condition but they can provide some therapeutic relief from the daily symptoms of nodal hand arthritis. 

Other Treatments

If your symptoms continue to trouble you despite trying these things then do go and see a hand therapist or an MSK hand specialist. Specific splints or exercises tailored to your hands might be needed or perhaps a Cortisone Injection into a particularly painful joint. Sometimes surgical treatment, including joint fusion or joint replacement may be needed and so you mind need to see a hand surgeon.

This article provides general information related to various medical conditions and their treatment. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis or treatment provided by a doctor or other qualified health care professional. The information provided does not constitute personal advice or guarantee of outcome and should not be used to diagnose yourself or others. You should never ignore advice provided by a health care professional because of something you have seen or read on this website. You should always consult a doctor or other qualified health care professional for personal medical advice. 

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