Helping Hands

Since my rheumatoid disease—my rheuma-dragon—roared back from its long and delightful remission a little over 10 years ago, it’s focused most of its fury on my hands.

With the exception of a few hours here or a day or so there, they always hurt. It’s usually not awful, say about a four on the ol’ pain scale (zero being no pain at all, and 10 being the worst pain you’ve ever experienced in your entire life), but not a moment goes by when I’m not aware of my knuckles.

Even when I’ve been successfully ignoring them for most of a day, a moment will come when, out of the blue, they bark at me. Viciously. Maybe I grab a colored pencil out of the jar just so. Twang! Or maybe I’m pulling back the bedspread to get into bed. Pa-PING! In that instant the dragon reminds me, in no uncertain terms, just who’s really in charge, here.

It’s annoying, you know?

Sometimes my hands don’t want to work. I can’t bend my fingers to make fists, for instance. Or maybe I can’t rely on my grip not to loosen suddenly. Sometimes my hands are more like talons or claws: arched half-circles, stiff and aching.

On days like that I have to take steps. And because I know so many of you also have to cope with this problem, courtesy of rheumatoid disease or whatever you choose to call it, I’m going to share them with you.

Heat is My Friend

  1. The first step I take is this: I find a bathroom with a sink. I plug the drain and run hot water—as hot as I can endure—into it, filling it until the water comes to about six inches above my wrists. Then I soak my hands it in, holding them under the water, flexing them gently, for as long as I can. When I’m done, my hands are bright red, but I can move them better, the pain damped down to a mean murmur.
  2. I put on compression gloves. I have several pairs of these that I’ve collected over the years. I find that the slight, overall compression, along with the warmth, the gloves offer can make my hands feel a little better. Sometimes they make the difference in getting a story written or a sketch done or not getting them done. Unless my hands are really, really bad—and I can’t stand to have anything touch them—the warm compression gloves help me cope with my RD hand pain.

Cold is My Other Friend, sorta

  1. This doesn’t work for me every time, but if nothing else is working, I’ll try it. I envelop my aching, twinging hands in an ice pack. I’m not brave; it hurts so much at first that I want to scream. Sometimes I cry. But I try to leave them in the cold until they get numb. When I finally, thankfully, put the ice pack away, my hands usually feel better, at least for a little while. Maybe it’s just relief that they’re not freezing solid anymore.

Motion is Lotion (forgive me, please)

  1. I was an artist and a writer—a working journalist—when I was diagnosed with rheumatoid disease almost 30 years ago. I still am today. That means that I’ve drawn, painted, and typed with these painful hands nearly every single day since. I’m convinced that the constant exercise my hands have gotten because of my work has kept them from turning into permanent talon-like claws. How much worse might they be without that constant exercise, I wonder? I’m always reading about how good exercise is for rheumatoid disease, and how “motion is lotion”, working to keep our joints functional. When I think about my hands, I believe it.
  2. Sometimes my wrists hurt along with my hands. When that happens, I go out of my way to stop that motion, at least in my wrists. I have a pair of wrist-splints that I slip on and Velcro tight, immobilizing them. That way I can still type (slower, I’ll admit) and sketch (yes, more awkwardly). But without the splints, I might not be able to endure doing either. They help. They’re tools. I use them, then put them away.

Real Lotion. The Nice Stuff

  1. I find that giving my hands a gentle massage with a lotion that smells nice can make my hurt hands hurt a little less. I love the lavender scented lotion from Trader Joe’s best for this: the scent is heavenly, and the lotion makes the massage comfortable as it sinks into the skin. It’s not greasy, which would ruin the whole experience. If you have a favorite hand lotion, I suggest you try it. Massage it gently into your fingers, your knuckles, your palms and thumbs and the backs of your hands. Use circular motions and don’t rub too hard. The whole idea is to make it feel good.
  2. Sometimes a lotion or salve with some menthol in it can help soothe my hand pain. If you’re made of tougher stuff than I am, you might want to try a cream or lotion with capsaicin in it. Capsaicin is the stuff in peppers that causes that burning sensation. I like Tiger Balm. Icy Hot is nice, too. The cooling or burning sensations work to relieve pain by distracting you from it.

Take Something

  1. Sometimes, nothing will help but an analgesic medication. Maybe an over-the-counter type will work? I try that first. If it doesn’t, then I bring out the big guns. I try to keep taking those to a minimum, though. I want them to work. If I take them too often, my brain gets used to them and they don’t work as well anymore.

Give Up

  1. I wouldn’t be telling the truth if I didn’t own up to sometimes just not using my hands at all. There are times when they hurt so much nothing helps, and I can’t do anything but sit there and cuss at them. Well, OK, I only do that for a little while. Then I try to read, or meditate, or watch a movie to distract myself from the pain. Fortunately, the really bad hands don’t strike very often anymore. But when they do, I’m not ashamed to give up, give in, and just sit still with my hands in my lap until the flare passes. Sometimes there’s just no choice, is there?

So that’s how I cope with this almost constant RD hand pain, dang it. If you have other ways of soothing it, please share them with me and everyone else in the comments. Go!

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