DEAR DOCTOR K: I have osteoarthritis in my hand. Could you recommend some drug-free treatments to relieve the pain?
DEAR READER: Osteoarthritis causes stiffness and pain in the joints. It develops when cartilage – the connective tissue that covers the ends of bones – deteriorates. In a joint, the ends of two or more bones come together. The softer and more flexible cartilage that covers the ends of the bones acts as a cushion. If the cartilage were not there, the hard bones would grind against each other.
Over time, the space between bones narrows and the surfaces of the bones change shape. This can eventually damage the joint. In the hand, the most common places for osteoarthritis are the joint at the base of the thumb and the last joints before the tip of the fingers.
Here are some nondrug treatments you can try instead of, or in addition to, more traditional treatments:
• Heat. Moist heat can help raise your pain threshold and decrease muscle spasms. Simply apply a warm, moist towel to your sore joint. You can also buy gel packs that can be warmed up in the microwave.
• Topical treatments. Many topical creams and gels, such as Bengay and Aspercreme, can be rubbed directly onto affected joints to temporarily reduce inflammation and pain. These products often contain salicylate, a relative of aspirin, plus menthol or eucalyptus. Creams and lotions containing capsaicin (an extract of pepper) can also help relieve pain.
• Splints. Hand splints can provide pain relief, improve function and realign the joint of your hand if needed. Splints come in a wide range of materials and forms.
• Exercises and joint protection. An occupational therapist can recommend devices that can help if your hand has lost some strength or function. Examples include long-handled grippers, electric can openers or doorknob turners. An OT can also suggest exercises to improve your function.
If these non-drug treatments don’t give you sufficient relief, consider over-the-counter pain medicines.
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