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Diabetes and Hand Therapy

9th March 2017
By Erika Lassig

Imagine a typical dinner party conversation. Topics that break the ice, like what you do for a living. When I’m asked this question, my response invariably draws a blank expression from other guests.

Occupational therapy, you see, is not a particularly well-known profession. I explain that I work in rehabilitation of the hand, which often leads to rapid-fire questions about an individual quirk people may have with their hands – ‘Am I double-jointed?’; ‘Is this normal?’; and ‘What’s this lump?’.

Nine times out of 10, it’s nothing unusual and the explanation is simple. Occasionally, however, the answer is much more interesting. If you have diabetes, statistically speaking, you are more likely to find yourself in the ‘more interesting’ category.

Hand conditions commonly affecting people with diabetes include carpal tunnel syndrome, peripheral neuropathy, trigger finger, Dupuytren’s disease and limited joint mobility.

Like most areas of your health, early diagnosis and treatment will help avoid more serious interventions like surgery. This is because further damage to delicate structures of the hand can be prevented.

As a general rule, the longer you have a hand condition, the slower the recovery and poorer the outcome. Many of the hand conditions experienced by people with diabetes can be managed with non-surgical or conservative treatment if the symptoms are fairly new.

Long-standing conditions may be improved with therapy, but are more likely to require surgery for complete resolution.

While your GP is always the first point of contact, it’s not always easy to tell the difference between some of the conditions. Hand therapy can fill this gap.

So, if you start to experience any unusual symptoms in your hands that don’t settle down within a couple of weeks, my advice is: keep calm, visit your GP and request a referral to an practitioner of hand therapy.

Your GP should have access to a list of therapists who are members of the Australian Hand Therapy Association (AHTA – www.ahta.com.au), who work in treatment of hand conditions.

At your initial appointment, an occupational therapist will perform a comprehensive assessment of your history and symptoms, and probably perform a variety of clinical tests to assist with diagnosis.

Treatment will most likely involve education to help you understand your condition, a list of dos and don’ts, possibly a splint or orthosis, and exercises. Occasionally, other therapeutic measures such as ultrasound or massage may also be beneficial.

Now for the good news. Like many inflammatory or degenerative conditions, there are steps you can take to help prevent onset or minimise symptoms. For example, avoiding sustained postures and repetitive activity over long periods can reduce or prevent inflammation.

Last but not least, a healthy lifestyle, keeping active and maintaining a target weight reduces your risk of diabetes-related complications, including hand and joint conditions. Your health really is in your hands.


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