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Managing the symptoms of arthritis—both physical and mental.

Arthritis comes in many forms.

Arthritis is a common affliction that affects the joints, causing pain and inflammation that can make it hard for sufferers to stay active. There are more than 100 types of arthritis, each with its own set of symptoms. While arthritis usually affects older people, it can develop at any age. Today in the U.S., about 50 million adults and 300,000 children have some form of arthritis.

Along with pain, arthritis can cause fatigue and even change your appearance. Together, all those symptoms can lead to feelings of frustration, anger, anxiety and depression. If you feel your arthritis is affecting your mental health, it’s important to seek the support you need to help you maintain a positive physical, emotional and spiritual outlook.

The three most common kinds of arthritis are osteoarthritis (caused by wear & tear), rheumatoid (inflammation of the joints) and psoriatic (attacking the skin, nails and joints). Each type can be mild, moderate or severe.

In the mild stage, cartilage in the joints begins to thin and eventually causes low-level pain from the bones rubbing against one another. Pain can be lessened by reducing stress on the joints.

In the moderate stage, inflammation increases as cartilage continues to degrade. In this stage,  it’s best to stay active, which may mean using adaptive equipment such as built-up utensil handles, automatic jar openers and rocker knives to make cutting easier, and a hook for fastening buttons. Wearing a splint protects joints and lets you use your hands as normally as possible.

In the late stage, pain, inflammation and stiffness are severe. Joint replacement surgery may be required, as loss of motion impacts normal daily activity.

A helping hand.

Certified Hand Therapist, Deb Gestrich, works with patients in St. Clair Health’s Dunlap Family Outpatient Center. “As a hand therapist,“ she says, “my role is to help patients with arthritis protect their joints, maintain their range of motion, and to provide information on adaptive strategies and equipment to place less stress on their joints. The most common type of arthritis that I see as a hand therapist is CMC, which affects the base of the thumb. As you can imagine, it can be quite debilitating.”

“Arthritis treatment varies by patient,” she says, “depending on the involved joints, degree of pain, and goals for resuming normal activity, I make sure each patient has a specific plan of care with treatment and goals based on their individual lifestyle.”

Tips for managing chronic pain.

At every stage, according to Deb, it’s important for patients to respect their pain, which may mean stopping an activity.  “I never recommend “pushing through the pain” or “no pain, no gain” with arthritis” she says. “You could be doing more damage. But I do encourage patients to move their joints in specific range-of-motion patterns to maintain pain-free movement.”

She adds that using a heating pad or paraffin wax dips or washing dishes in a warm sink can all help alleviate some of the pain. “Dip your hand in paraffin wax repeatedly to build up a layer of wax on your hand,” she says, “then cover it in plastic and wrap it with a heating pad. My patients tell me the paraffin treatment they get in the clinic ‘melts away’ the pain.”

“I think the most important thing is to respect your pain. Pain is there as a warning sign to stop doing whatever you’re doing to prevent damaging the joint.”

Arthritis also takes an emotional toll.

Dealing with any form of arthritis can be frustrating, because it limits your ability to do the things you want to do. When frustration turns into anxiety and depression, the pain can feel even worse. “It’s important to pay attention to your emotional and psychological state,” Deb points out, adding, “there are many techniques and resources available to help people manage mental health. Stress management, meditation, support groups, one-on-one therapy can all help, and staying active can be one of the best ways to improve physical and mental health.

”I recommend checking with your doctor if your mental health becomes hard to manage on your own. They can help you with a personalized plan, including support and medications if needed.”