As a certified hand therapist, I often sit down with people who have been diagnosed with osteoarthritis and help them put together a plan. The key is not, as people often assume, to simply perform a set of exercises, but to learn and apply joint protection strategies to familiar daily tasks.
Behavior change is the means to help you continue to do the things you need to do in a way that protects your joints. Often I’ll ask my patients to make a list of their dressing, kitchen, and bath tasks, as well as their leisure interests, so that we can find effective solutions that they can apply in their daily lives. Here are a few examples:
Modifications to Make Everyday
- Use the larger joints of the body to perform certain tasks. For example, try wearing your bag across your body, rather than carrying it with your hand. Lighten the load by either carrying fewer things or reducing the weight of the things you carry. Periodically clearing out your bag can make a big difference.
- Make adjustments to your posture. Sitting and standing with good posture can help take stress off of your joints.
- Rather than pushing yourself through pain, find a way to modify tasks that are causing you discomfort. For example, rather than pinching your fingers together to pull a bag open, use scissors instead. Don’t challenge the pain.
Maintaining Your Joint Health
- Stay active-many people fear that they won’t be able to maintain an active lifestyle once they receive a diagnosis of osteoarthritis. While high impact exercise is not recommended for people with osteoarthritis, low impact exercises like swimming or walking can be extremely beneficial. Consult with your physician or physical therapist to find out which exercises are best for you and your lifestyle.
- Keeping your joints flexible-performing 10 repetitions of an active range of motion exercise each day for each unaffected joint will help maintain your flexibility. Unless you have a few involved it’s okay to make a gentle fist, hold 5 seconds, and then straighten and splay your fingers apart.
- Isometric exercises are exercises that are done by contracting the muscle without producing any (or very little) motion. Find an object you can squeeze without bending (like a rolling pin or other cylinder). Perform 10 repetitions daily for 1-3 sets as long as there is no pain.
Think critically about the activities you perform day-to-day, and work with your therapist to find ways that you can get them done without aggravating stiff and sore joints. By reflecting on and identifying your needs, you’ll find that there are many possibilities to help maintain your independence and wellness.
John Indalecio is an occupational therapist and certified hand therapist at the Hand Therapy Center at Hospital for Special Surgery.