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SportsMed News

When Should You See a Hand Therapist?

June 6, 2024

If you’re experiencing hand pain or limited function in your hand or upper extremities, seeing a hand therapist can be your path to recovery.

Hand therapists are medical professionals with extensive training in treating conditions affecting the hand, fingers, wrist, elbow, and shoulder. They work closely with patients to improve their function and reduce pain.

What Is Hand Therapy?

Hand therapy involves assessing and treating injuries and conditions affecting the upper extremities, including the shoulder, arm, elbow, forearm, wrist, and hand. It uses various therapeutic techniques to help regain the highest level of function.

The specialization emerged due to the need for experts capable of managing the complex recovery process associated with hand and upper extremity injuries.

A hand therapist, whether an occupational therapist (OT) or physical therapist (PT), attains proficiency through:

  • Advanced education
  • Clinical practice
  • The integration of knowledge in anatomy, physiology, and kinesiology

They have the skills to treat a wide range of upper extremity conditions resulting from trauma, disease, congenital issues, or acquired deformities. 

Hand therapists can address basic and intricate hand conditions to facilitate optimal recovery and functionality.

Common Reasons to See a Hand Therapist

If you’re experiencing any of the following issues, it might be time to consider reaching out to a hand therapist.

1. Persistent Pain

Aching, throbbing, or sharp pain in your hand, wrist, or forearm can make it difficult to do everyday tasks.

Hand therapists can treat pain caused by various conditions like:

  • arthritis
  • carpal tunnel syndrome
  • tendonitis

They’ll use targeted exercises, braces, and other techniques to manage pain and promote healing.

2. After an Injury

Fractures, sprains, strains, lacerations, burns, or nerve damage can leave your hand or wrist weak and stiff.

A hand therapist can design a personalized rehabilitation program to restore strength, flexibility, and range of motion.

This may involve therapeutic exercises, scar management, and modalities like ultrasound to reduce inflammation and promote tissue repair.

3. Post-Surgical Recovery

If you’ve undergone hand or wrist surgery, including amputations or joint replacements, you’ll need hand therapy for proper recovery.

A hand therapist will guide you through exercises to regain strength, flexibility, and coordination, minimizing scar tissue formation and maximizing functional use of your hand.

4. Limited Function

Difficulty gripping objects, pinching, or performing daily activities due to weakness, stiffness, or pain can be frustrating.

A hand therapist can assess the underlying cause and create a program to improve dexterity and strength.

This might involve exercises focusing on specific motions, using braces to support weakened areas, or recommending adaptive tools for daily tasks.

5. Numbness and Tingling

Numbness and tingling often indicate nerve compression, like carpal tunnel syndrome. Early intervention by a hand therapist can be crucial.

They’ll use specialized techniques to reduce pressure on the nerve, potentially including:

  • splinting or braces
  • activity modification
  • therapeutic exercises to restore normal nerve function and reduce the uncomfortable sensations

6. Other Conditions

Aside from the situations above, if you’ve been diagnosed with any of the following conditions, a hand therapist is the best professional to work with:

  • Arthritis
  • Trigger finger
  • Dupuytren’s contracture
  • Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
  • Tennis and gold elbow
  • Ganglion cysts
  • Frozen shoulder
  • DeQuervain’s Tenosynovitis (“Mommy Thumb”)

doctor writing on a form while standing at a hospital

Why See a Hand Therapist Vs. Other Practitioners?

While general practitioners, physical therapists, and orthopedic surgeons all play vital roles in healthcare, a hand therapist is the ideal specialist for hand and wrist concerns.

Here’s why:

Specialized Expertise

Hand therapists possess in-depth knowledge of the intricate anatomy and function of the hand and upper extremity. 

This specialized training allows them to diagnose and treat a wide range of hand conditions with greater precision and expertise compared to a general practitioner.

Certified Hand Therapists (CHTs) have even more extensive education, training, and certifications that qualify them to treat even the most complex conditions of the hands or upper extremities.

Targeted Treatment

Hand therapists develop treatment plans specifically tailored to hand and wrist issues.

Their focus goes beyond general strengthening exercises used by physical therapists to address the unique needs of the hand’s complex muscle structure and intricate joints.

Non-Surgical Solutions

Hand therapists can often effectively manage pain, improve function, and promote healing through non-surgical methods like splinting, therapeutic exercises, and modalities like ultrasound.

This is often a preferred approach compared to surgery recommended by an orthopedic surgeon.

Rehabilitation After Surgery

Even after surgery performed by an orthopedic hand surgeon, hand therapy is crucial for optimal recovery.

The hand therapist’s specialized knowledge ensures a smooth rehabilitation process, helping you regain strength, flexibility, and function in your hand.

Collaborative Care

Hand and Upper Extremity Specialists understand the importance of collaboration. They work closely with referring physicians, including:

  • general practitioners
  • orthopedic surgeons

“Usually, a doctor or a surgeon would refer you to a hand therapist to prevent the need for surgery with appropriate exercises, manual therapy techniques, and modalities. They may also refer you immediately after the surgery for splinting, edema control, and appropriate motion”, says Marta Profis, OTR/L, CHT (SportsMed Regional Director of Occupational Therapy and Certified Hand Therapist at SportsMed Glen Rock).

This collaboration ensures a comprehensive treatment plan that addresses your specific needs.

What to Expect at Your Hand Therapy Appointment

Marta asserts that with a thorough assessment and progressive treatment, a hand therapist will speed up the recovery process, allowing you to return to all your activities quickly.

Here’s what you can generally expect during your initial hand therapy appointment:

Evaluation Stage

The hand therapist will discuss your medical history, including the nature of your hand or wrist problem, how it began, and what makes it better or worse. They’ll also ask about your daily activities and how it affects them.

Then, they’ll thoroughly examine your hand, wrist, and, if necessary, your arm. This may involve checking how well you can move them and how strong they are. They’ll also check for any swelling or visible deformities.

The therapist will discuss a personalized treatment plan tailored to your needs and goals based on the evaluation findings. This plan will outline the types of therapy they’ll use, how often your sessions will be, and how long recovery will take.

Female hand therapist talking with senior adult woman

Treatment Plans

Hand therapists have various tools in their toolbox to address various hand and wrist issues. Some of the treatments they may recommend include:

Therapeutic Exercise

Using a tailored exercise plan is key to treating your hand. A hand therapist will show you how to do exercises to make your hand and wrist stronger, more flexible, and more coordinated.

Custom Splinting

Splints can be helpful for keeping a joint from moving, easing pain, and promoting healing. These splints can be custom-made by the therapist to match your exact needs.

Manual Therapy Techniques

Hand therapists can use their hands to move your joints and massage your muscles. This helps your joints move better, get rid of stiffness, and feel less pain.

Wound Care

If you have a wound on your hand or wrist, a hand therapist will provide proper wound care instructions, including cleaning, dressing changes, and scar management strategies.


Ultrasound, electrical stimulation, or other modalities can help reduce swelling, speed up healing, and manage pain.

Remember, this is just a basic plan, and the specific treatment your therapist will recommend will depend on your situation. 

Your therapist will discuss everything with you during the appointment and answer any questions you have.

Benefits of Hand Therapy

Hand therapy offers a multitude of benefits for those experiencing hand, wrist, or upper extremity problems. Here’s how it can help you:

Reduced Pain and Inflammation

Hand therapists can significantly reduce pain and inflammation through targeted exercises, splinting, and manual techniques, allowing you to move your hand more comfortably.

Improved Function

Whether it’s gripping objects, typing, or performing daily activities, hand therapy can help restore strength, flexibility, and dexterity in your hand and wrist, enabling you to regain full use of your hand.

Faster Recovery

Following an injury or surgery, hand therapy can significantly accelerate your recovery by promoting healing and minimizing scar tissue formation.

Prevention of Complications

Early intervention by a hand therapist can help prevent future complications or disabilities associated with various hand and wrist conditions.

See a Hand Therapist at SportsMed Physical Therapy

If you’re experiencing any pain, weakness, or limitations using your hand, wrist, or forearm, don’t hesitate to seek help from a qualified hand therapist.

At SportsMed Physical Therapy, our Hand Therapists have the expertise and experience to create a personalized treatment plan to get your hand functioning properly again. 

Contact us today to schedule an appointment and take the first step towards hand pain relief and regaining full use of your hand.