Hand therapy is the science of treating strength and range of motion in an individual’s upper extremity. It includes arms, hands, wrists, shoulders, elbows, and forearms. Patients seeking hand therapy generally have an injury or chronic condition which demands therapeutic assistance. Hand therapists specialize in this treatment, providing preventative care, post-operational rehabilitation, and non-operative therapy. If you are looking to regain functionality in some part of your upper extremity, then hand therapy may be right for you.
What is hand therapy?
Many people have never heard of hand therapy. Unlike physical therapy – which treats the feet, ankles, knees, hips, back, neck, and shoulders – hand therapy focuses specifically on the shoulder to the hand, and every joint and muscle in between. It can be a component of occupational therapy (OT) or physical therapy (PT), either helping individuals complete everyday tasks with their impairment or working on the impairment directly by improving mobility and lessening pain, respectively.
What is a hand therapist?
A hand therapist is trained in kinesiology, physiology, and anatomy. Coming from a background in OT or PT, a hand therapist typically goes through extensive education and training to become a Certified Hand Therapist – or CHT. CHT certification requires a minimum of five years of clinical experience that consists of at least 4,000 hours of explicit practice in upper extremity work. CHTs must pass a certification exam and complete continuing education every five years to retain their designation.
What does hand therapy involve?
Hand therapy consists of many different rehabilitation treatments. They can be non-operative, preventative, or post-surgical. Once a CHT has evaluated your condition and consulted with your surgeon or physician, he or she will develop a treatment program that best suits your needs.
Some standard therapy types are:
- Injury avoidance education
- Soft tissue procedures
- Range of motion activities
- Joint movement
- Electrical stimulation
- Nerve desensitization
- Occupational conditioning
- Strength exercises
- Scar management
- Dexterity training
- Pain management
- Hot or cold packs
- Custom orthotic creation
What injuries and illnesses does hand therapy treat?
Hand therapy can be used to treat many common conditions. It aims to lessen pain and help patients reclaim average mobility and functionality. It can improve:
- Carpal Tunnel Syndrome: hand or arm – tingling or numbness caused by a pinched nerve
- Cubital Tunnel Syndrome: hand or arm – severe pain, tingling, muscle weakness, or numbness caused by a pinched nerve
- Ganglion Cyst: hand or wrist – benign lump on the joints or tendons (unknown cause)
- Tennis Elbow: outer elbow, forearm, or wrist – pain, tenderness, or swelling caused by a repetitive arm motion
- Hand Pain: hand – pain with moving fingers or turning the wrist (many causes)
- Repetitive Motion Disorder: any part of the upper extremity – joint stiffness, tingling, tenderness, or muscle weakness caused by overuse or repetitive motion
- Trigger Finger: finger – clicking, popping, stiffness, or tenderness caused by an inflamed tendon that makes the finger get stuck in a bent position
- Golfer’s Elbow: hand, fingers, wrist, or elbow – tingling, tenderness, or stiffness caused by repetitive, forceful stress to an area
- De Quervain’s Tenosynovitis: wrist – tenderness, pain, or swelling caused by repetitive motions
- Dupuytren’s Contracture: ring and pinky finger – bent finger or lump located in the palm, caused by tissue tightening and thickening in the hand
- Sprains, Dislocations, and Fractures: any part of the upper extremity – pain, swelling, or tenderness caused by trauma to the body
- Burns and Wounds: any part of the upper extremity – blistering, pain, peeling, or redness caused by damage to the skin or tissue
- Amputations: any part of the upper extremity – removal of a limb or appendage caused by injury, illness, or disease
- Fine Motor Skill Deficiencies: hands or fingers – coordination problems or muscle weakness caused by dyspraxia, strokes, and other disorders
- Arthritis: any part of the upper extremity – intermittent or sharp pain, swelling, stiffness, or decreased range of motion caused by infections, normal wear and tear, and some diseases
What can I expect during a therapy appointment?
Your hand therapist will want to make sure that you are progressing every session towards your goals. To do this, the CHT will measure your range of motion, strength, posture, or nerve sensation during every visit – depending upon your needs. Your therapist will also discuss exercises that you can complete at home to further your rehabilitation. These activities will help your recovery advance quicker than just therapy appointments alone.
Hand therapy exists to lessen pain, not make it worse. That being said, sometimes working muscles will cause soreness after treatment is over. Stretching may also be uncomfortable, but any tenderness usually dissipates within a day. Your hand therapist is there to make sure you are comfortable during your session; pushing your body too far can worsen injuries.
If you believe that you are a candidate for hand therapy, contact a CHT to schedule an evaluation. You don’t have to live with pain or loss or motion for the rest of your life. Hand therapy can ease a multitude of symptoms and get you back to where you want to be.