Arthritis, overuse and circulation problems can lead to cold, painful fingers.
by Claire Sykes
They open jars and close doors, type emails and touch others. Usually, we don’t eventhink about our hands—until they feel painful, tingly, numb or cold.
Hands are complex. “Within such a small space, there are so many bones, ligaments, muscles, nerves and blood vessels. And there are so many joints, each with a specific range of proper functional motion,” says Trevor Sevigny, LAc, of Seattle Acupuncture Associates.
Our hands can handle a lot when we’re young, but years of repetitive activities can lead to discomfort. The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons reports that hand and wrist pain drives more than 10 million people a year to physicians’ offices. Fortunately, most ailments affecting the hands can be prevented or treated.
Wear and Tear
Pain or other symptoms can originate in the hand itself or reflect imbalances in the neck and spine. “A chain of mechanical events related to your posture extends from this area out to your hands,” explains Sevigny. “You can move your body the wrong way for a long time before it starts to wear down from the strain of compensating for poor mechanics.”
A pinched nerve in the neck can arise from sitting hunched over too much, shooting pain down into the fingers, or poor muscle coordination may affect how the bones and joints in the hand move and feel. In turn, hand problems can affect the arms and shoulders.
Common hand disorders include:
Arthritis—This occurs when the smooth cartilage covering bone at the joints begins to erode, either from general wear and tear (encouraged by genetics) or injury. “If you do a lot of texting or repetitive pinching from something like knitting, you’re more at risk for arthritis,” says Jane Fedorczyk, PT, PhD, CHT, ATC, of Drexel University in Philadelphia. Hand arthritis causes stiffness, swelling and pain, mostly at the base of the thumb or the middle finger joint.
Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (CTS)—Maggie Evans, 64, of Renton, Washington, worked at her computer, weeded her garden and played golf for years. “Then one day I couldn’t even hold a pen, I was in so much pain,” she says. Evans was diagnosed with CTS. Symptoms, which can include tingling and numbness, occur when tendons in the wrist swell and put pressure on the nerve that runs into the fingers. The cause is unknown, but it’s likely that Evans’ activities contributed to her CTS, which can also result from joint dislocations, fractures, arthritis and keeping the wrist bent for too long.
Circulation Problems—If your hands are cold, even on mild days, inadequate blood flow is the likely culprit. Blood vessels in the hand can become constricted; in Raynaud’s disease, this constriction is caused by spasms in the vessels, resulting in blue fingertips. Or, like someone standing on a garden hose, muscle pressure may push too hard or for too long on blood vessels, causing them to narrow.
Keeping Hands Healthy
To help prevent hand disorders, “keep joints flexible every day, and strengthen fingers by spreading them apart and back together, and making a strong fist,” says Fedorczyk. “And pay attention to pain.” Using heat early in the day can make it easier to perform hand exercises. If symptoms persist, Fedorczyk suggests consulting a specialized therapist (American Society of Hand Therapists, www.asht.org).
Evans saw Sevigny for acupuncture. “Locally, the needles’ mere piercing releases chemicals that block pain. They can also be positioned to cue or inhibit certain muscles, to retrain posture,” says Sevigny. Evans says, “After 20 minutes, the constant throbbing in my arm and tingling in my hands went away, and my strength returned.” Sevigny also recommends massage and stress management.
The best way to keep hands healthy is through a daily routine of stretches and exercises as recommended by a practitioner or therapist as well as by making equipment such as a computer desk fit your body, instead of the other way around.
Targeted nutrition can help. Natural inflammation fighters include the pineapple enzyme bromelain, plant-based antioxidants called flavonoids, green tea, olive fruit and oregano extracts, omega-3 fatty acids (found in fish or krill oil) and curcumin, found in the curry spice turmeric. Other nutrients used to fight arthritis include glucosamine and chondroitin, connective tissue building blocks; manganese, a mineral crucial to connective tissue integrity; MSM, which supplies joint-building sulfur; and black cherry, which helps reduce arthritic inflammation. Vasodilators promote healthy circulation; natural substances that fall into this category include omega-3 fats, B vitamins and the herbs hawthorn and gingko. In addition, magnesium can help relax stiff, tight muscles.
Some Simple Hand Exercises
Wrist Bends: Sitting with your elbows bent, forearms parallel to the floor, turn your palms downward with the fingers side by side and extended. Then bend your wrists as far back as you can without causing pain. Repeat several times, holding each position for five seconds.
Finger Os: Hold your hand open with the fingers apart. Then touch the tip of your thumb to the tip of each finger in sequence, opening the hand again after each touch. Repeat with the other hand.
Thumb Bend: With your hand open and relaxed, reach across your palm with your thumb towards the base of the little finger. Hold for three seconds, then stretch the thumb outwards as far as you can. Repeat with the other hand.