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Managing joint pain in the upper limb

Pain is defined as an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience which we primarily associate with tissue damage. Pain is always subjective. Each individual copes with pain differently. Pain can be sharp, or dull. It can come and go, or be a constant feeling. Sometimes it can be worse following the use of the hand or wrist, and other times it can feel worse when resting. No matter your circumstance, there are ways that pain can be managed.

Whether you experience a little pain, or a lot of pain, we have some tips that you might use to help manage your pain. The purpose is to help decrease stress to the painful joint or tissues, but also to decrease your own personal stress. Pain can increase when we feel tired or under stress. What do we do about this? There are two main ways. The first is eliminating or minimising the circumstances that produce stress, and secondly, reducing your personal sensitivity to pain by acquiring skills to cope.

Some things you can do at home to help manage pain include:

1. Heat/cold: The use of heat increases circulation and decreases joint stiffness. It may include application of wheat bags or soaking the hands in warm water. Inflammation can be exacerbated by heat if it is used inappropriately. It is important that the heat source you use is not too hot. The temperature should be a comfortable warm temperature. Cold is best for reducing pain when there is acute inflammation. For example, if there is a ‘flare’ up or after ‘overdoing it’, particularly if the joints feel warm to touch.

2. Exercise: helps to keep muscles strong, bones healthy, and joints mobile. Exercise stretches the joint structures to relieve stiffness and pain and improve flexibility. Exercising in warm water is particularly effective, or exercising after you have had a warm shower. Exercise should start out gently – overdoing it can increase swelling after an injury which can lead to more pain. Exercises should be enough to stretch out any tight tissues, scar or muscles gently without creating more pain. It’s a fine balance, but we can help you with that.

3. Relaxation: when you are stressed, muscles are tense, which can make the pain more severe. Relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, muscle relaxation, meditation, imagery (mental pictures) and visualisation help decrease tension. Engaging in relaxation techniques before you go to bed, such as turning off your ipad, or iphone and reading a book instead, may help you to fall asleep. Sleep is important when managing a painful injury or condition.

4. Distraction: distraction techniques focus your attention on something else other than your pain, for example: reading, listening to music, going to the movies, going to the library, exercising, calling a friend on the phone.

5. Taking care of your joints and saving energy: taking care of your joints helps relieve pain, maintain function and protect your joints from damage. This could include taking breaks when you are completing a task such as weeding the garden, or vacuuming the house. It can also include wrapping a sponge around the handle of your cutlery so you don’t have to grip as tight when you are eating. It may also include using both hands to lift something, or changing how you carry something, for example, putting a shopping bag on your forearm to carry rather than using your fingers.

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