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Hand therapy (also known as hand rehabilitation) is a branch of occupational therapy specializing in diagnosing and treating disorders and injuries that affect the hands. Hand therapists use both active and passive range-of-motion exercises with their clients to increase flexibility and strength through movement. They also may design custom splints for immobilizing and supporting weak or deformed joints.

Here are various things you should know about hand therapy:

How Does Hand Therapy Affect Function?

A well-planned, goal-oriented program focusing on functional activities that meet each patient’s individual needs is implemented by therapists who are experts in hand function. The patient’s motivation, abilities, and progress determine the course and duration of treatment, which may consist of one or more types of treatment: nonoperative; exercise; and surgical intervention. Treatment is individualized for each patient and might include education about the disease process, home therapy/exercises to maintain strength, range of motion, coordination, splinting occupational therapy, or surgery.

Hand Therapy Is Like Other Types of Therapy in Some Ways but Different in Others

Therapists who treat upper extremity disorders use the same treatment principles as those used by therapists who treat orthopedic problems such as shoulder dysfunction, mid and lower back pain, and knee injury and dysfunction. These principles include: using equipment to assist with function; adapting equipment for use at home; setting up environmental modifications to help patients perform their daily activities; instructing patients on how to exercise; prescribing therapeutic exercises; recommending compression garments; and instructing patients in the use of their own assistive devices.

When Should You Contact a Hand Therapist?

It’s best to seek care early before the loss of function occurs or is complete. For example, you might call your health care provider if you’ve experienced any one of the following: an injury to your upper extremity; progressive sensory loss in your fingers; weakness in dominant hand; prolonged/recurrent pain when gripping objects; decreased ability to perform ADLs [activities of daily living] or IADLs [instrumental activities of daily living]; decreased grip strength in both hands; loss of shoulder motion in overhead arm/hand movements; decrease in range-of-motion in the wrists beyond what you would expect to see with normal aging; or tingling, burning or pain caused by nerve compression.

Are There Different Levels of Specialization in Hand Therapy?

Like other healthcare providers, many therapists practice in specific clinical areas such as pediatrics (children) and geriatrics (older adults). Some therapists who treat the upper extremity do so only after a referral from your primary care physician or surgeon; others are independent clinicians who diagnose and treat patients directly. Many occupational therapists also provide home health care services for individuals needing assistance following surgery or an injury. Other professionals practicing hand therapy include nurses, orthopedic surgeons, physical medicine physicians [who specialize in rehabilitative measures], hand surgeons and neurologists.

What Can You Expect from A Hand Therapy Session?

Treatment is individualized for each patient. It might include evaluation to determine what structures are involved, analysis of your need for assistive devices, and assessment of your home environment modifications. It can also involve instructing you on therapeutic exercises, providing compression garments, and recommending compression bandaging to treat persistent swelling after surgery or injury.

Hand therapy is an important aspect of the profession. To improve clinical outcomes in patients with upper extremity disorders, therapists should begin incorporating therapies into their treatment regimen to meet patient goals. Clinicians should take advantage of all available resources to provide the best possible service for their patients.