Arthritis in your hands can make joints and muscles achy and stiff. It also weakens your grip and reduces hand function. Soon, simple daily tasks - from opening lids or combing your hair, to carrying heavy objects or lifting your child - can become daily battles.

Hand exercises and arthritis drugs are the first line of defense, but there's more help at hand. A study conducted in France showed that occupational therapy (OT) can improve hand function in patients in the early stages of rheumatoid arthritis (RA).

In the two-year study, 60 patients with RA were divided into two groups. The first group participated in a multidisciplinary program that included education on joint protection, wrist and hand exercises twice a day, OT training in motor function and skills, advice on assistive devices, splints to use during rest and overnight to prevent joint deformation, and counselling. The second group received no information.

Researchers assessed the patients for grip strength (objective) and through a Health Assessment Questionnaire, or HAQ, (subjective). After three months the first group that participated in the full program had greater improvement in grip strength in both their dominant and non-dominant hands than participants in the second group. The HAQ scores were also lower in the first group, which meant that participants felt they had improved function.

In an extension phase, patients in the second group received the full information program at three months and were assessed at six months. They experienced similar improvements in grip strength and HAQ scores.

Researchers conclude that while more studies are needed, the study shows that an OT program improves function in both hands and should be provided for everyone with early RA.

What is Occupational Therapy (OT)?

The American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) defines OT as skilled treatment that helps individuals achieve independence in all facets of their lives. Occupational therapy practitioners, or occupational therapists, are skilled professionals who study human growth and development with specific emphasis on the social, emotional, and physiological effects of illness and injury.

An occupational therapist has a master's or doctoral degree. An occupational therapy assistant has an associate degree. Practitioners must complete supervised clinical internships in a variety of health care settings, and pass a national examination. Most states also regulate occupational therapy practice.

How Can an Occupational Therapist Help You Cope with Arthritis?

Occupational therapists take a well-rounded approach to your treatment. They consider your abilities, the tasks and activities you need to do, and the environments you need to do them in.  According to the AOTA, here are the ways an occupational therapist can help you:

  • Create customized treatment programs to improve your ability to do daily tasks and activities.
  • Evaluate your home or workplace and recommend changes and modifications that make living and working easier when you have arthritis.
  • Design adaptive equipment or suggest assistive devices that help you function better in daily activities.
  • Make custom splints to rest or support limbs.
  • Recommend exercises that help relieve pain and stiffness, and advice you on which activities to avoid.
  • Recommend coping strategies to combat the emotional and psychological effects of arthritis such as depression and stress related to lack of sleep due to pain, disfigurement, or loss of function.
  • Provide guidance and advice to your family members and caregivers.