Strength in Digits

Strength in Digits

I can happily say that except for some osteoporosis in my hips and lumbar spine I have little to no cartilage damage in my joints. I was lucky that we caught my Rheumatoid Arthritis quickly and treated heavily from the beginning. The most difficult thing for me was dealing with the side effects of these severe medications but I guess they did their job because so far so good.

However, even without the blood work or x-rays I exhibit clinical Rheumatoid Arthritis symptoms (I still maintain a seronegative diagnosis) like pain and fatigue. When I am flared up, I especially feel these in my fingers and other small joints and start losing my grip.
I drop water glasses, planters, nail polish bottles, almost anything regardless of its weight. My most memorable moment is when my father, who has osteoarthritis, and I broke my late dog’s food dish. It was a sturdy, ceramic bowl that stood strong against a big, fat Bullmastiff face. Between my dad and I we managed to drop and shatter the thing. In our defense, that bowl was heavy and it did survive four or five good drops and tosses. Excuses aside, this is when I truly realized my grip strength changed.

When my joints are in pain they shut down

I spoke to my doctor and he explained to me that sometimes when my joints are in pain they shut down. The brain releases them to prevent perceived injury. He said it was very similar in rock-climbing. It is a full body sport and the muscles tire pretty evenly. Whenever I introduce someone to climbing they always climb strong…until they don’t, until they can’t even wrap their fingers around a hold. When some of the muscles get tired, others take over. When they all fatigue the person feels totally weak and not in control of their movements. This made sense to me but frustrated me at the same time.

I was so bent on not loosening my fingers, on maintaining my grip strength that I concentrated really, really hard on clenching my them together. I stopped dropping things! But, I moved too far in the opposite direction and couldn’t break my grasp! My hands now got stuck around my dog’s leashes and I needed help to release them. I had to knock shampoo bottles out of my hand with other ones. I only released brushes after I soaked my fingers in hot water.

This didn’t surprise my father, my doctor or me. I was always susceptible to extreme holding because when I was a kid I used to hold clench my fists naturally. My mother worked tirelessly with me to relax my fingers, hands and wrists and eventually I sort of stopped doing it. I still go there as my natural resting state which causes more strain on my smaller joints. I try to rest my hands on a pillow so they don’t bend too much but that’s as far as I’ve gotten. I don’t know what else I can do to manage grip strength. Use a stress ball (I know they make something similar for rock-climbers to build finger muscle), play with playdoh? Are there any good exercises I can do?

Have you lost your grip? Let me know if and how you manage it in the comments!
 

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The RheumatoidArthritis.net team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

Comments

View Comments (22)
  • claudiav.
    11 months ago

    If I could describe the pain in my fingers , it is like tiny toothaches in each joint .I find my fine motor skills are not what they use to be buttons, typing all a chore.can’t open jars .and although I have no swelling the pain is constant.

  • Monica Y. Sengupta moderator author
    10 months ago

    Thank you so much for commenting on my article, claudiav! I love your description because it is so true! It really does feel like little toothaches!

    You bring up an interesting point. Would I want swelling over pain or vice versa? Or are both equally disabling?

    Thanks again! ~Monica

  • hansentania
    11 months ago

    I thing there are two reasons I drop things. One is definitely grip, but the other is because when my fingers are swollen, the feeling in my fingers is decreased, so I think I can’t feel wether it’s in my hands or not.

    So far, I haven’t had the problem of having my hands lock up; it’s been limited to my feet, knees and hips.I hope my hands escape that problem for a long time.

    Thanks for everyone’s sharing. Really helps a lot knowing I’m not the only one and knowing what to expect.

  • Monica Y. Sengupta moderator author
    10 months ago

    I’m glad you enjoyed the article and I’m really glad you commented, hansentania! It’s the best way for us all to share and communicate on the site. It really helps me because I am just writing from personal experience and I love to learn what others are dealing with.

    You bring up a good point about decreased sensation in your fingers. I never really thought about it but it is something I should take note of! Thank you! ~Monica

  • Jo J
    11 months ago

    At an appointment about 6 months after diagnosis, my PA asked if I’d been dropping things – I was shocked – I hadn’t realized it was RA related. I thought I was inattentive and not gripping. I only give jars a simple attempt now – it hurts to much to force it – I just holler at my husband, “I need a man!” 😉 And trying to hold a screw in place! My fingers just feel fat, less sensitive and clumsy. Mis-typing on the phone is also an issue when they are swollen. My fingers don’t lock up, but my elbows do on extension. Absolute worst though is when it hurts to hold hands with my grandkids!

  • Monica Y. Sengupta moderator author
    10 months ago

    Oh no! I am so sorry J0dspace, it must be really frustrating not being able to interact with your grandchildren in that way! Before my RA I never really thought about how much I need my hands/fingers and I am still trying to find creative ways to do things when they don’t work as expected.

    Thank you so much for commenting on my article!! ~Monica

  • deedee3
    11 months ago

    Back in the late 90’s when I first developed R.A., but didn’t know that I had it, I started dropping things constantly, without warning. One time my boss called me in to talk to me about my job placement for the coming school year, and my phone kept falling out of my hand. This kept happening while I was standing in front of her desk trying to discuss the situation. Then, over and over again, as I tried to pick up my phone, it fell to the floor again before I could get it more than two or three feet off of the ground. I finally got aggravated and tossed it back onto the floor, from a height of no more than two and a half feet. My boss didn’t like me because of a surgery disability claim, and she then wrote me up for “throwing my phone at her.” This was in no way true, because I was on the other side of the desk from her, and my phone landed at my feet. In the end, H.R. called in a policeman who warned me about inappropriate behavior, I was given a three-day suspension, and a permanent letter was put into my file. Happy to say that another department hired me before the three days were up, and my former boss was later fired for the truly vicious things she did to me and to other employees she disliked. Even so, I have to admit that when I learned I had R.A., fifteen or twenty years later, I felt very relieved to understand why I kept dropping things and why my weird symptoms made me vulnerable to the hostile actions of my former supervisor. I now understand that I was mistakenly diagnosed as having severe arthritis in my thumbs and wrists in the late 90’s. After surgery on my right hand, the R.A. initial flare disappeared for more than fifteen years. Unfortunately, my R.A. came back in a severe form when I was 60 years old, after menopause and it has been excruciating trying to get it under control. (And yes, the first place it came back was my hands.)

  • Monica Y. Sengupta moderator author
    10 months ago

    Hey deedee3, thank you so much for sharing your story. I am so sorry you had to deal with that in your job…But, I’m glad the supervisor eventually got what was coming to her.

    You mentioned your RA symptoms came back after menopause and it reminded me of this article. It’s not particularly positive but talks about the connection between RA and menopause: https://rheumatoidarthritis.net/living/ra-and-how-menopause-may-affect-it/

    Thanks again for commenting on my article!! ~Monica

  • rockcandi
    11 months ago

    My fingers have always been one of my biggest problem areas. They hurt and swell an ache ALL the time, of course they’re always at their worst during a flare up. And losing my grip constantly is one of my first signs of an oncoming flare. I lose my grip at times even when I’m not flared up but it’s never-ending, regardless of weight or size of objects when I’m flaring. I’ve tried putty, didn’t do a thing for me except cause more pain and my fingers locking up, but it must work for some people or it wouldn’t be so widely used. I hope you find something that helps, Monica. And Rick, I think there is a tad more of the male pride thing that keeps men from asking for help or letting on when hurting or having trouble, but I do agree with Monica that we all do this bc of who we once were and what we were once able to do. I fight and push through doing things I shouldn’t bc I want to prove it to myself that I haven’t lost all my abilities.

  • Monica Y. Sengupta moderator author
    11 months ago

    Hey rockcandi!! Occasionally, I have an acute pain in one or two fingers and see major swelling. For whatever reason it always surprises me! I’m not sure why your comment made me think of this but thank you so much for commenting on my articles!! I really appreciate it! ~Monica (RheumatoidArthritis.net Team)

  • Monica Y. Sengupta moderator author
    10 months ago

    !!! Your comment put a huge smile on my face which I really needed today! Thank you so much!!

    I am really glad my articles resonate with you…It’s hard to gauge it since we are all going through the same thing but in different ways! (If that makes any sense). I sometimes have a really dry sense of humor that doesn’t necessarily translate over the internet so I’m glad you like it!!

    Seriously, thank you so much for your kind words. They very much made my day. ~Monica

  • rockcandi
    10 months ago

    I love reading your articles bc you address things that need to be addressed but in a great way that’s not negative sounding and often makes me smile or lol. Thank you for that, It means a lot to me to know someone has very similar thoughts as I have and is going through similar stuff, makes me feel so much less alone.

  • Dalia
    11 months ago

    I was diagnosed with RA after I went to the doc because I was dropping EVERYTHING! I couldn’t even prevent something as light as a pen or straw from falling. It is very frustrating! I still have problems with grip but the thing that annoys me the most is I’ve noticed typing on my laptop is almost a joke for my left fingers. I keep missing keys so often that I thought my keyboard was bad but then my husband tried and it was fine. It’s just that the pinky and ring fingers of my left hand just often don’t press down hard enough. I’ve tried using some of the therapy putty but it only caused more pain. My fingers don’t usually hurt much so that is a blessing, but I just have to adjust to them not working. Gentle hugs!

  • Monica Y. Sengupta moderator author
    10 months ago

    I am so glad you are not feeling too much pain in your fingers, Dalia! I definitely understand your frustrations. Have you looked into dictation options? They are especially helpful for me when just looking at my keyboard makes my fingers swell! Gentle hugs right back!! ~Monica

  • Richard Faust moderator
    11 months ago

    Hi Monica. You mention playdoh. One of my wife’s physical therapist had her use something called TheraPutty, which you squeeze with your hands/fingers to strengthen them. It comes in different color coded resistance levels. Best, Richard (RheumatoidArthritis.net Team)

  • Monica Y. Sengupta moderator author
    11 months ago

    Thanks Richard!! I will take a look at it.

  • tckrd
    11 months ago

    Yes just recently this started. I have been diagnosed for 3 years but just recently my fingers have started cramping actually a better description would be they lock in a debilitating painful straight position.

  • Monica Y. Sengupta moderator author
    11 months ago

    Hey tckrd, I am so sorry to hear that! This is actually something I’ve been dealing with myself. Definitely talk to your doctor, he/she may be able to recommend something to help with that.

    Please keep me updated!

  • Lawrence 'rick' Phillips
    11 months ago

    Oh I have. It is awful. I was putting the bicycle rack on a couple of weeks ago and my hands hurt so badly I could barely get the bolt tightened.

    I took this as personal challenge and worked until it was taken care of. Now getting it off was just as difficult.

    Sheryl came to the garage when we got home and asked what was taking so long? I told her I was adjusting the bicycle rack for summer.

    Of course I refused to let on about the real reason. Yeah male identity is a real thing at my house.

  • Monica Y. Sengupta moderator author
    11 months ago

    I would argue that it’s not necessarily “male” identity but just “previous” or “ghost” identity! I still try to deflect when my fingers aren’t strong so that people don’t know I’m having issues that day!

    I know I should ask for help but I just can’t bring myself to do it some days!

  • Monica Y. Sengupta moderator author
    11 months ago

    Thanks Richard. I haven’t read this article yet!

  • Richard Faust moderator
    11 months ago

    Hey Monica and Rick. Asking for help is certainly one of the more difficult things for members of the community to get acclimated/accustomed to. Have you seen this article from Carla on why it so hard to ask for help: https://rheumatoidarthritis.net/living/no-6-ask-for-help/? Best, Richard (RheumatoidArthritis.net Team)

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