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Published on December 04, 2017

mother and son holding hands

How Hands Can Be Healed

You don’t have to be a piano teacher or a surgeon to realize how meaningful your hands and fingers are to your daily life.

From simple to significant, the many actions our hands perform prove how they are our gateways into the world, completing important tasks as well as offering loving caresses.

When our hands are limited by injury or illness our quality of life is deeply affected.

“Some ailments of the hand come on gradually, and people tend to accept them as part of life – the pain or numbness simply becomes the new normal,” said Avera Medical Group orthopedic hand surgeon Kathlyn Drexler, MD. “For people with painful hands wondering when they should seek treatment, I tell my patients, when you can no longer enjoy the things you enjoy because of your hands – that’s when it’s time to do something about it.”

Almost Like Fingerprints

The complex network of soft tissue and bone that makes up our hands and wrists is not just intricate, but includes an incredible degree of natural variation in certain structures can produce unique arrangements with implications to each of us.

“There are over 20 tendons and three main nerves that come through ‘Nature’s Bottleneck’ in the wrist on their way to the hand,” she said. “With natural variations in the structures, along with the myriad of different ways in which people use and misuse their hands, it is actually a miracle that these systems usually work together flawlessly to give our hands the functions we oftentimes take for granted.”

Many maladies that affect our hands are camped into two groups: nerve compression conditions and those where tendons are irritated or entrapped. Naturally, some conditions are a combination of these two major categories. People who suffer from conditions could experience intense pain, numbness or other nerve-related weakness or a lack of sensation.

Some of the more well-known conditions include carpal tunnel syndrome, which can cause numbness, weakness, or discomfort, and happens because of nerve compression. What we generally call “tendonitis” is known by physicians to comprise a variety of tendon-irritating issues, some of which arise from misuse or poor posture, and others that are inherited or brought on by tendon entrapment, mechanical irritation or chronic illnesses.

“It’s a tapestry of systems at work, from circulatory to musculoskeletal to nerves and skin,” she said. “Since the personal experience of symptoms can vary, and may improve from one day to another, my patients’ descriptions of their problems along with the physical exams I conduct in clinic are both vital to the process of developing an effective treatment plan.”

Describing the Inexpressible

Even for professionals, finding the right words to describe some of these elusive conditions can be challenging.

“It can be tricky to pinpoint the symptoms and lock down the actual cause, and that’s why I explain to patients with many different symptoms that finding the right diagnoses is a journey, one we take together to get to the root of the problem,” she said. “Explaining to a doctor what feels off, or what hurts, can be really challenging, especially since it may have started as one issue and morphed into other problems over months or years.”

An arsenal of treatment approaches is important for any patient. “But I don’t do a shotgun approach – we start with one problem, work out a solution and go on from there,” she said.

Managing a condition may begin with rest or physical therapy exercises, braces for hands and fingers, and may progress to needing surgery in some cases.

When the process is applied and a patient on the verge of giving up finds relief, Drexler said this is what makes her daily practice so fulfilling.

“There’s nothing more rewarding than meeting patients who have long struggled with hand problems and helping them find relief,” she said. “When I can get them to take another look with an open mind and ask what if there’s a way to fix this – we start that journey toward healing.”

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