Thursday, September 24, 2009

Handling Hand and Wrist Pain

By Karen Litton, L.Ac.

Our hands are such an integral part of our bodies that they are easy to take for granted – that is, until they start hurting or our fine motor control is impaired. It is then that we begin to realize how much we rely on our hands to interact with the world.

It is hard to even imagine all the tasks our hands perform for us. We use them in personal care, to engage in athletic endeavors, to work, and this time of year, to garden. With more than 50 muscles to move the 27 bones in the hand and numerous sensory nerves, we use them to touch others and our environment.

In Chinese medicine, the hands are powerful areas of energy and energy exchange. Six of the 12 Primary Meridians either begin or end at the fingertips and connect us to other areas and systems in our body. “Dis-ease” elsewhere in our body can show up in our hands. Thus, our hands can be used to treat other areas of our body.

Hand or wrist pain can occur from a variety of sources and be felt in many ways. There can be pain after local trauma or injury, as a result from straining while lifting, or in exercise, or even while lying in bed with the hands curled awkwardly. There can be pain following over-use or repetitive movements. For many of us, long hours working on the computer can also result in painful wrists or fingers. For others, it can arise after prolonged exposure to cold, heat or dampness.

The quality of the pain can vary. It can be dull and aching or sharp and uncomfortable. It can radiate to or from other areas, such as the forearm or shoulder. There can be a feeling of stiffness and tightness in the ligaments/tendons, or even seem as if there are nodules on the fingers.

Western medicine has various names for these conditions: arthritis, carpal tunnel syndrome, neuropathy, trigger finger, joint inflammation or degeneration, etc. Drugs are often prescribed for the pain. The difficulty is that they do not address the root cause of the difficulty and therefore do not last. In other words, the benefits of pain medication are only felt as long as the drug is in the system.

From a Chinese medical perspective, most hand pain falls under a general heading of Painful Obstruction Syndrome of the hand channels, which results from the blockage of qi or blood in these channels. As with any syndrome, Chinese medicine seeks to diagnose the probable root cause of the problem and thereby determine the best way to address the symptoms.

Most pain patterns stem from a variety of factors.

An extremely common cause of finger, hand and wrist problems is the contraction of the muscles in the hands or forearms due to overwork or trauma. These sensitive areas in the muscles can be considered “trigger points.” This is simply another way of describing an area in which the qi and blood have stagnated and caused a muscle “knot” or area of contraction and soreness.

An important part of self-care is to figure out what is stressing these sore spots and then to modify or remove those stressors. Repetitive strain injuries are common whatever the activity – even if we are having fun! Whenever we do a motion over and over, without a break, the tension gradually increases in the joints and muscles, and they contract. Unless we do something during or after the activity, such as stretching, these areas remain contracted.

Stretches for Your Hands & Arms:

There are a few simple stretches that you can do for your hands to help ensure that the qi and blood are flowing and the area does not get blocked. This can make a big difference to your hands, especially if you use them a lot.

Take a moment and stretch your arms out in front of you. While the arms are outstretched, pull the hand back toward your body with the other hand. Hold for five seconds. Then do the same motion bending the fingers and hand toward the ground.

Then make circles with first your hands, and then your arms, to get the blood flowing in those areas. Take each finger and gently bend it to the side and backwards as you stretch the finger tendons.

Simply flexing and extending the fingers with an open then closed fist can be helpful to getting blood to flow into the area.

Since pain in the hands can be referred pain from the shoulders or neck, it is good to stretch these areas, too. That can be done by rolling the shoulders up toward the ears and letting them drop down, as well as by making windmills with your arms.

Herbal Liniments for Pain Relief:

There are some wonderful liniments at the Clinic, which you can rub on your hands. Zheng Gu Shui will feel warming to use. Two with more cooling qualities are White Flower Oil and Po Sum On. Be careful not to get these oils into your eyes. We also have a tendon soak made with raw herbs, which have been boiled to make a soak for your hands. For arthritis, you can also soak your hand in hot apple cider every night.

Take care of your valuable hands and fingers, and come see us if you have difficulties.