Within occupational and physical therapy is a subset of professional treatment called hand therapy. While less well-known than other PT and OT specialties, this approach to healing can make a significant difference for individuals who suffer from problems affecting their upper extremities.
What is hand therapy?
Hand therapy is rehab focused on the upper extremities: The hand, wrist, forearm, elbow, arm, and shoulder. This approach uses a variety of techniques in order to deliver a customized treatment that strengthens and heals the upper extremities while restoring a patient’s ability to pursue their daily activities.
Hand therapy is typically delivered by a certified hand therapist (CHT). This professional is a licensed physical therapist or occupational therapist who has extensive experience in the area of the hand and upper extremities. This highly-trained professional typically has to fulfill the following requirements in order to receive certification:
- 5 years clinical experience, minimum
- 4,000 hours of practice in the upper extremities
- Passed a demanding certification exam
- Obtains recertification every 5 years
Hand therapy includes a wide range of therapeutic approaches that reflect the complexity and diversity of problems that affect the upper extremities. What all hand therapy will have in common, however, is the application of these techniques by a qualified professional to address your specific hand therapy needs.
What does hand therapy treat?
Hand therapy is appropriate for a wide array of problems affecting the hands and arms. These include everything from trauma to wound care, sprains to tendonitis. Here is a list of some of the most common issues hand therapists are well-equipped to address:
- Sprains and tears
- Fractures and dislocations
- Burns and wounds
- Amputations and reattachments
- Carpal tunnel
- Joint pain
- Scar tissue
- Tennis elbow
- Neurologic conditions affecting the use of the hands and arms (e.g stroke)
- Adaptive equipment usage
- Pinched nerves
- Trigger finger
- Golfer’s elbow
The scope of a specific hand therapy treatment program will depend upon the patient, their condition, and their specific goals. For example, a musician with arthritis will have different hand therapy needs than an office worker with carpal tunnel. However, hand therapy can help patients achieve any of the following goals:
- Pain reduction
- Non-operative intervention
- Post-operative rehab
- Preventative care
- Improved mobility and range of motion
- Loosening of scar tissue
- Wound healing
- Restoration of function
- And more
What treatments does a hand therapist utilize?
Because a hand therapist addresses a wide array of conditions, injuries, and disorders, they have a large toolbox of approaches they can use to help restore function, mobility, and comfort in the upper extremities.
The specific treatment a hand therapist will choose for you will depend upon an initial assessment of your condition. During this assessment, the CHT will go over your health history and evaluate the reason for your visit, your range of motion and functionality, your goals for treatment, and other relevant information. Then they will develop a customized course of treatment designed specifically for your hand rehab needs.
Here are some of the treatment approaches you might encounter from a hand therapist:
- Manual therapy
- Exercises such as putties or grips
- Water therapy
- Electrical stimulation
- Soft tissue therapy
- Education in areas such as repetitive motion and ergonomics
- Pain management
- And more
In addition, your hand therapist will measure your progress at every visit. By evaluating your function, pain levels, and more, they can see which treatments are working and ensure that your hand therapy is helping you to achieve your goals.
What is outside the scope of hand therapy?
Hand therapy, by its very definition, restricts treatment to the hand and upper extremities. As a result, any therapy needs you have that extend beyond this area will need to be addressed outside hand therapy.
In addition, not every hand therapy treatment will be suitable for every patient. As a result, you will need to listen to your therapist regarding the treatment approaches that will work best for your specific situation.
However, because hand therapy does address such a broad range of conditions and injuries, you can seek out a CHT with confidence whenever you experience problems with your hands or arms that is creating difficulty within your daily life.
The path to healing often begins with the hand. When seeking rehabilitation for your hand and/or arm, turn to a certified hand therapist who has the compassion, skills, and training necessary to offer you a customized treatment plan. With consistent support and therapy, you can quickly regain functionality, reduce pain, and improve swelling so you can enjoy greater freedom in your daily life.