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Surgery Can Relieve the Pain of Some Types of Hand Arthritis

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Surgery Can Relieve the Pain of Some Types of Hand Arthritis

May 16, 2019

Most people with hand arthritis just live with it. However, there are two types of surgery that can effectively eliminate arthritis pain and improve your quality of life. Dr. Tom Miller talks to orthopedic surgeon and hand expert Dr. Douglas Hutchinson about these operations and what conservative methods you might want to consider for hand arthritis.

Episode Transcript

Dr. Miller: Are there surgical solutions for your painful hand arthritis? We're going to talk about that next on Scope Radio.

Announcer: Access to our experts with in-depth information about the biggest health issues facing you today. The Specialists with Dr. Tom Miller is on The Scope.

Dr. Miller: Hi, I'm Dr. Tom Miller and I'm here with Dr. Doug Hutchinson. He's a Professor of Orthopedic Surgery here at the University of Utah. Doug, I have a lot of patients that come to see me with arthritis in their hands as they get older. They're asking me from time to time if there are any surgical solutions for their pain.

Dr. Hutchinson: Everyone gets arthritis in the hand at some point in time as long as we last long enough. Most arthritis in the hand is something that people live with and I think that's appropriate. Surgery is not going to solve everything that comes down the road, but there's no question that some people have certain fingers that get arthritic changes that hurt them on a daily basis and really get in their way of doing certain things in the kitchen, doing certain things in the garden, doing certain sports activities, and those we probably in some situations can help a lot.

Dr. Miller: How do we do that?

Dr. Hutchinson: For example, in the fingers the most common place to get arthritis is near the tips in the last joint, called the distal interphalangeal joint, right underneath your nail. Some people get cysts that grow out of those that become a problem on the nail and they're painful. Those can be taken care of if we get rid of some of the arthritis there.

Primarily, if the joint of the finger is stiff and painful and has arthritis on x-ray, which is common, one of the things we'll do the most commonly is fuse that joint. That just means putting a screw across the one bone into the other bone and making that joint effectively go away. You can't bend it at the end, but it stays straight the whole time.

Dr. Miller: And that eliminates the pain?

Dr. Hutchinson: That totally eliminates the pain, and the other joints still make you use your hand very well. Functionally, you're normal without that last joint working.

Dr. Miller: Are there any particular joints in the hand that are more amenable to surgery than others?

Dr. Hutchinson: Yeah, other than the DIP joint of the fingers, which is the last joint near the nail, the base of the thumb, which is all the way back closer to your wrist. Some people even think that they have wrist pain but in fact it's the base of the thumb that's hurting them. Typically a patient will really have a hard time with certain grips. They won't want to shake hands as much. They really hate the fact that they can't open a jar at home. They've got to give it to their wife or their husband to figure that out. It's generally a thumb pain problem that is really, in the world of humans the thumb is overwhelmed by what we do with our hands, and there are more forces put through our thumb joint than was originally intended.

Dr. Miller: Do you perform a similar stabilizing surgery where you put a pin or screw in the joint?

Dr. Hutchinson: Yeah. For a thumb arthritis, the most common solution is to remove a bone at the base of the thumb, which means the two ends of the bone that were grinding on each other causing pain, now one of them is gone. There's no longer a bone grinding on a bone. The word arthritis means "arth" which is joint, and "itis" which is inflammation. I tell my patients that if you don't have an "arth" you can't have arthritis. The getting rid of the "arth" is either a fusion, like we do in the distal joint of the finger, or a resection of the bone which means it can still move very well as opposed to a fusion. The pain is gone and we use a tendon to help stabilize the joint.

Dr. Miller: Would you recommend conservative therapy prior to considering surgery for either a distal interphalangeal arthritis or base of the thumb arthritis?

Dr. Hutchinson: Yes. We always recommend conservative care first, and most times that usually works for a lot of people for a good bit of time. A thumb arthritis, the mainstay for treatment is to get them a splint. The splint is something no one wants on their hand and no one wants on their thumb in particular, but it's worn at night when no one theoretically is using their thumb in the middle of the night. It allows the thumb to rest. That may make it better during the day when you take the splint off and use your thumb for normal activities.

We always want them to avoid certain activities. You don't want to open a can with a hand crank if you have thumb arthritis. You want to go out and buy an automatic can opener. That's something our hand therapists insist on. They think that should be done; at age 20 we should all get automatic can openers.

Dr. Miller: In your opinion, what would be the best conservative therapy? What do you advise patients to take?

Dr. Hutchinson: We generally tell them to wear a splint during the night that's fairly rigid that holds their thumb. We give them a strap type of a splint that's easy to wear during the day that they can wear when they want. When they don't want to they can not wear it at all. It sometimes helps when they're gripping things and gives them a little bit more support and decreases their pain.

If they get to the point where it's worse, we'll often inject them which helps them for two to three months at a time and really makes their pain go away, again, can delay the surgery if they want to have the surgery. Some people come back to me every six months and say, "Give me another injection. I don't want that surgery. I ain't got time for that. Let me just have three, five, six months of peace, please."

Dr. Miller: What is the durability of the surgery? Is it long-lasting?

Dr. Hutchinson: Yes. The surgery for base of the thumb arthritis is actually one of the best we have in our armamentarium. It works well in most any surgeon's hands. There are different procedures that can be done, all of which work about the same or as well as the others. I would caution a patient that it takes three months of being good and wearing a splint, and therefore it's a longer rehabilitation than they would like.

Other than that being a negative, the rest of it is positive. They maintain their motion. They actually increase their grip strength a little bit. Their pain is effectively 100% resolved at that particular joint. Again, a person with a lot of arthritis in their hand is not going to get the rest of their arthritis to go away, but that one is usually the one that is causing the most problem.

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updated: May 16, 2019
originally published: January 19, 2016