Don’t Take Your Hands For Granted

An orthopedic surgeon shares three simple ways to keep hands and wrists healthy.

Nicole Lopez, MD
Nicole Lopez, MD
“Because our fingers and hands are always in motion, we tend to take them for granted,” says Nicole Lopez, MD, an orthopedic surgeon at Cooperman Barnabas Medical Center who specializes in hand, wrist and elbow surgery and is a member of RWJBarnabas Health Medical Group. “The good news is that there are simple steps that anyone can take to keep their hands safe and healthy.” Her advice:
  1. Warm up wrists and fingers before a workout. “Injuries often occur after people begin yoga or a new workout routine,” says Dr. Lopez. “We’re used to the idea of stretching and warming up knees and shoulders, but we don’t do the same for wrists and hands. Then a new workout can cause minor wrist and finger sprains that keep getting re-sprained and turn into a longer-term issue.”

    Loosen up wrists before you load them with weight by doing wrist circles--one minute in the reverse. "For fingers, extend them and flex them, bending backward and then forward," Dr. Lopez says. "Thirty seconds should be enough."
     
  2. Wear sunscreen on the back of hands. “As a hand surgeon, I frequently see that people have sunspots [small, flat brownish spots] on the back of their hands, which are exposed to the sun constantly but rarely get sunscreen,” says Dr. Lopez. While sunspots are not skin cancer, they should be monitored. Rapid changes in a sunspot may indicate it should be checked by a doctor.
     
  3. To avoid overuse injuries, pay attention to pain as it occurs. An overuse injury is any type of muscle or joint injury, such as a stress fracture or tendinitis (inflammation of a tendon), caused by repetitive demand.

    Most of us have heard about overuse injuries to the hand and wrist based on extensive use of computers, smartphones and other devices. Office workers and retail workers who need to pick things up frequently are at risk of tennis elbow, a type of tendinitis caused by repeating the same motions over and over.

    “People usually find a way to work around these pains by making adjustments,” Dr. Lopez says, such as changing the height of a keyboard, taking a brief rest or using a different arm to lift things. The idea is to be mindful of a pain while it is occurring, instead of just powering through it. “Modify your activity while it’s happening, or stop doing what you’re doing,” says Dr. Lopez. “That’s much easier than dealing with an issue after it has become a problem.”

Speaking Your Language

“I can’t stress enough how important it is to have a healthcare provider who can speak the language that you speak,” says orthopedic surgeon Nicole Lopez, MD, who is fluent in Spanish. “I see patients coming in with sons, daughters or even very young grandchildren functioning as interpreters, but often the message being sent is not the one being received.

“For example, the patient may say, ‘I have knee pain at the end of the day, especially when I go up and down the stairs,’” she says. “While translating, the relative may generalize that the person is always complaining about knee pain. That could be the difference between a diagnosis of inflammatory arthritis vs. osteoarthritis.”

If patients don’t have access to a physician who speaks their language, they can ask for a trained medical interpreter. In addition, any family member who accompanies a patient to a doctor visit should be thoroughly informed about the patient’s medical history.

Cooperman Barnabas Medical Center provides free language assistance services to people whose primary language is not English.

Learn more about orthopedics and care for your hands at Cooperman Barnabas Medical Center.