Aging & ArthritisHandPrevention

Be Kind to Your Hands


Our hands are one of the most amazing arrangements of sinew and bone in the natural world…ever. They’re one of the things that differentiate us from the lesser animals, enabling us to put our huge brains to use. What good is a big brain if you can’t make a club, wield a sword, turn the pages of a book or use a keyboard? I don’t know which evolved first; the big brain or the facile hand, but one wasn’t much good without the other, as far as the caveman was concerned.

In the old days a saw bones couldn’t do much more than an amputation for a bad hand. Later he could set a fracture and release the median nerve for carpal tunnel syndrome. But now there are so many things a surgeon can do to help our hands that we have subspecialists for just that end.

And we need them because we like to abuse our delicate hands. I’ll always refer back to my caveman concepts to remind you that we’re good for about 25 years. Somewhere between 25 and 40 things start going downhill…and that’s not just our faces. Our hands take a beating and once they’re suffering from arthritis, whether that’s genetically scheduled osteoarthritis or post-traumatic arthritis. There’s no putting Humpty Dumpty back together like he was at 20.

So why not help them out a little? Especially that special little joint at the base of our thumb that allows it to pivot around in a movement we call opposition. I thank God every day for the ability to press my index finger against my thumb. Not many critters can do that.

I see and treat a bunch of hand disease and because I would like to minimize my potential to develop those diseases, I’ve come up with a list of things to protect my hands, without diminishing the quality of my life. I’m going to share them with you tomorrow, and assure you I am doing these things for myself.

As promised…ways to be gentle to your hands. Follow these recommendations and maybe I’ll be seeing less of you!

  • Invest in a nice electric can opener. It’s hard to open cans and once you get arthritis, it’s nearly impossible. So why not start using the electric can opener before you get it? I used to hate electric can openers because of that greasy, black coagulum of old tomato juice and pork and bean gravy that collected in its little gears. But now you can remove that piece and wash it! Using an electric can opener will spare your thumb a lot of stress over the decades.
  • Use jar opening gadgets and bang the lids on the counter top before trying to open them. Spreading your hands out and doing something as strenuous as opening large jar lids and tight bottle tops really strains those delicate joints. Again, once you have arthritis, you won’t even be able to try. Don’t wait until you have pain to start using these handy little devices. I also like to use those little rubber pads.
  • Notice how you grab the steering wheel in your car. Do you hold it with your four fingers wrapped tightly around the wheel and your thumb hyper-extended like a hitch hiker? Try to relax your hands on the wheel. This position puts a lot of pressure on the base of your thumb also. Many of my patients have pain when they drive. I encourage them to wear driving gloves and even to put a sheepskin cover on the steering wheel. You can grab tightly while using these items, but they’ll create a subconscious reminder to loosen your grip.
  • Get smaller milk cartons, or the cartons with a handle instead of the big square half gallon cartons. Again, that wide grip is the perpetrator of harm to your thumb.
  • Same goes for big books, notebooks, dictionaries, and family Bibles. Don’t just grab them with one hand from the shelves. Lift them with two hands; one pulling from the top and the other supporting the bottom of the book.
  • Use an electric toothbrush rather than an old school brush. Again, that grip with the thumb hyper-extended should be minimized. You grab an electric toothbrush with your fist and you don’t have to manually move it up and down like you do with the old school brush. Cavemen didn’t brush their teeth.
  • I’m going to pull my first plug against pushups and I know I’m going to get loads of hate mail, just like I did when I came out against squats. I love the idea of pushups. It’s a cheap, easy way to get a full body workout. You can do it when you’re out of town and have no access to a gym. You can do it if you don’t want to go to a gym or buy your own weights. You can use them to help count scores at a football game, even when the scoreboard works just fine. They’re just fun! But I see tons of patients who have injured their hands and wrists doing pushups. I know someone will ask about using pushup bars. Yes, they help reduce some of the stress of pushups by loading the wrist in a more biomechanically advantageous way, but there are other issues to be further discussed later. Remember, our little hands and wrists evolved away from being weight bearing structures to being dexterous structures; best used for delicate manipulations. So don’t go four -legged on me.
  • Use gloves when doing dirty or heavy work; weight lifting, gardening, construction, colonoscopy. They protect your hands from injury and infection, but also allow you to loosen your grip.
  • Don’t try to carry 10 bags of groceries from your car to the kitchen. I used to sling one bag on every finger, two on some if the bag was light. Believe it or not, I’ve seen patients develop finger tendonitis and “tennis elbow” from doing just that. Take your time. Frankly, taking your time is a good adage in general. Often we injure ourselves because we’re in just too dang much of a hurry.
  • Don’t persevere with any activity that causes pain in your hands, thinking you can just work through it. Give it a rest. I’m thinking of my patients who spend an entire day cutting paper or fabric with scissors, all the while developing a numb spot on the side of their thumb. That can cause permanent damage. Stop. Use different scissors. Rest. Get some gloves. Let someone else do it for awhile.
  • Always try to negotiate with others by using your words and not your fist. The fist almost always loses against teeth, walls and windows. It sometimes wins against noses and tummies.


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