Patient: “Doctor, it hurts when I do this.”
Hand Surgeon: “Then stop doing that!”
Although it may not hurt yet, repetitive tasks — especially when done over a lifetime — can take their toll on your joints. The hands are particularly vulnerable, thanks to how delicate they are and how much we put them through every day.
Fortunately, by changing some of your habits, you can help keep the hand surgeon away.
No. 1: Using Your Thumbs to Do the Whole Hand’s Work
Do you pick up your kids by putting your thumbs in their armpits and lifting?
If you do, stop it, because it’s killing your hands.
This position makes the thumbs work harder than they’re capable of, especially because you’re probably exerting pressure with the heel of your hand so you can hold on tight. Sooner or later, you will begin to experience pain, weakness or shakiness that interferes with your fine motor skills. Next stop: hand surgeon.
No. 2: Cleaning the Wrong Way
Did your mother (or grandmother) ever say, “If your arms don’t hurt, there’s wrinkles in the shirt?” She probably had arthritis in her hands too, didn’t she?
When you clean, do you pinch that sponge or rag tightly and press down really hard, putting a lot of “elbow grease” into the work? If so, you’re setting yourself up for an early trip to the hand surgeon for carpel tunnel problems or another repetitive stress injury.
(You might find yourself using a similar grip with the iron, a paintbrush or garden tools.)
Try to avoid any activity that requires you to both grip tightly and push down too hard — especially if what you’re gripping has a small diameter. You can purchase ergonomic hand tools or wrap your small-diameter tool handles with self-adhesive wrap until they feel comfortable to grip.
No. 3: Lifting Heavy Things with Your Hands
You know how you’ve always heard that you should lift with your legs, not your back? Hand surgeons want you to lift with your arms, not your hands.
When you let your hands do all the work, you put excessive strain on the most delicate bones, ligaments and tendons in your body. Never lift with your wrists or fingers in extreme positions; instead, try to keep the joints in a neutral position if you’re lifting something heavy, like a gallon of milk or bagful of groceries.
No. 4: Typing Under Pressure
When you’re stressed or on a tight timeline, you’re more likely to tense up. Tensing up your hands while you’re using them — to type or write, for example — is especially harsh on the joints.
Although you can’t eliminate all the stress and deadlines from your life, be sure to give your hands a break every so often. Even just being mindful about relaxing your hands and arms as your fingers fly over the keys can help. Also, ergonomics.
No. 5: Eschewing Ergonomics
If you think that ergonomics is for whiners, just wait until you need a hand surgeon to fix your joints.
Most people use a computer for work today, for some or most of the day. Make sure you’re following the principles of ergonomics for your hands and arms, as well as for the rest of your body.
At a minimum, avoid putting pressure on the elbows, wrists and the base of the palm. Also, avoid keeping your wrists bent upward (even a little is bad). Ideally, you want your elbows bent at about 90 degrees and your elbows, wrists and hands on the same plane, parallel to the floor.
No. 6: Working with Your Hands in the Cold
The cold can be brutal on the joints of your hands.
Hand surgeons recommend keeping your fingers and hands warm, especially when you’re working (yard work) or holding them in one position (driving). If wearing gloves or mittens isn’t practical for what you’re doing, try using fingerless gloves. You can buy weightlifting gloves or, for a more thrifty solution, cut the fingertips off of an old pair.
At the Center of Orthopedic & Rehabilitation Excellence (CORE) in West Valley City, Utah, Dr. J. Douglas Burrows specializes in hand surgery and the treatment of injuries and chronic conditions of the hands and fingers. Contact us to learn more about keeping your hands healthy and strong for life.