Monday Medical: Thumbs up for healthy hands

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I'd be willing to bet 90 percent of us have not consciously thought about our hands this week. I don't mean checking out our fingernails, using lotion to moisturize dry skin or lamenting about age spots.

I'm talking about the function of our hands. Are we feeling a little pain or stiffness when we grip the computer mouse? Finding it difficult to spin the lid off a jar? Noticing an occasional tingling after using the keyboard or other work tools?

Today, the beginning of Hand Therapy Awareness and Injury Prevention Week, is the perfect time to start paying more attention to our hands, wrists and forearms.

"Pain is a big motivator for people to seek medical treatment," says Sue Winters, certified hand therapist in Steamboat Springs. "Loss of function or declining muscle strength also are key reasons that people seek hand therapy."

Hand problems can occur at any stage of life. Winters points to recent advisories issued by the American Society of Hand Therapists linking video games and handheld electronic devices to hand and upper extremity problems in children and young adults.

"Nintendo Thumb" and "BlackBerry Thumb" are popular names for a repetitive stress injury that causes swelling at the base of the thumb due to overuse of video games or electronic "life organizers." Even mobile phones and portable media/music players are sources of injury due to excessive use of the thumb when text messaging or using the scroll wheel.

"Repetitive motion does not necessarily cause injury," Winters said. "But poor ergonomics or hand positioning combined with repetitive motion can cause a variety of problems."

Carpal tunnel syndrome is perhaps the most well-known painful result of cumulative trauma. Tennis elbow is another. Winters sees these conditions and many other types of injuries while performing hand therapy at SportsMed at Yampa Valley Medical Center.

"People use their hands so much. After surgery or an injury, they need a quick return to the best possible function," Winters said. "The hand is a very intricate arrangement of bones, muscles and tendons, and it requires special treatment."

Timing also is important. Winters said immediate intervention following hand surgery is crucial to improving strength and function, minimizing pain and increasing range of motion.

Hand therapy involves exercise, massage, heat and cold treatments and education. Custom splints frequently are a part of the treatment; Winters said she has created hundreds of them.

Common injuries in Routt County are lacerations from sharp objects, puncture wounds from tools and fractures or dislocations from skiing, snowboarding or falls on ice. Winters also treats burns and painful conditions such as arthritis. And then there are those pesky repetitive motion injuries.

"We have good success with treating carpal tunnel syndrome," Winters said. "Long-term healing requires not just therapy but a commitment to making lifestyle changes and appropriate ergonomic adaptations at home or work. That's where patient education comes in."

The hand therapy program at SportsMed will offer free educational materials this week and free paraffin hand dips at selected times. Winters also will provide free hand injury screenings by appointment only. For appointments or more information, call 871-2370.

Christine McKelvie is public relations director at Yampa Valley Medical Center.

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