Shaking Hands

One of my first problems with RA – in that period of time between when I first saw my PCP and when I was finally diagnosed by a rheumatologist – had to do with greeting people.

In our society, when you meet somebody new, introductions are made; people shake hands.  A lot of information is conveyed in that handshake.  A firm grip says one thing, a limp noodle says something completely different.

I found it to be a particular problem on Sunday mornings.   In some churches, people turn around and shake hands with the people sitting directly in front of, and behind them, then sit down.  Not mine.  Everybody spends fifteen minutes walking around and shaking hands with everyone else.  Not fun when your hands hurt.

That led to my first consultation with Dr. Google:  “How can I politely avoid shaking hands?”  For such a common problem, I found a disturbing lack of tips.  Avoiding the situation is next to impossible – especially when you work.  I asked others with more experience, and set about compiling coping strategies for handshakes.

  • Turn hand 90 degrees, palm down.  The people with whom you’re shaking hands will automatically rotate their own hand to compensate, thus they don’t grip so tightly.  This is easy for women, but might be awkward for men; one man I know turns his hand palm-up and that works just as well for him.
  • Use two hands for an extra-friendly handshake.  People don’t set out to prove who’s strongest when you do this.
  • Wear gloves.  Compression gloves are said to help sore hands, but I’ve found that people give a more gentle handshake even if I’m wearing driving gloves.  Once I forgot my driving gloves and wore wool gloves.  This works if you’re indoors and everyone else is bare-handed; it does not work outdoors.
  • Some people recommend offering your left hand instead of your right.  You’d think that this would provoke questions, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.  People just assume there’s a reason you’re being non-traditional, and don’t squeeze as firmly with their left hand.  I know a man who just flips his left hand upside down so that others can still shake with their right.
  • Wear an ace-bandage or wrist brace.  The drawback to this is that then you have to answer the question, “What did you do to your hand?”
  • Hold something lightweight in your hand.  Keys, pencils… anything that can be used to stab people who try to hurt you!
  • Instead of stepping forward to shake hands, step back slightly and bow (Asian style).  Smile, and carry on with the conversation.

A few I wouldn’t want to try in a place of employment, but work well in a casual setting:

  • Step back, laugh, and make a cross with both hands (as if you’re warding off a vampire).  Explain that you’re coming down with (or just getting over) a cold and don’t want to spread the germs.
  • Don’t shake hands; just smile and wave – even if you’re only two feet apart.

Final tip:  carry a small bottle of hand sanitizer in your pocket so that (once greetings are over and nobody’s looking) you can kill all those germs you just collected!

The good news is that it gets better.  As your meds kick in and work their magic, shaking hands isn’t usually painful.

Any other maneuvers you’d like to share for making socially mandatory handshakes less painful?


4 thoughts on “Shaking Hands

  1. You raised an issue I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. The other day at church, I was introduced to a large man who was from Texas and I knew the strong handshake was coming. I smiled outwardly but moaned with pain to myself. I still haven’t figured out what to do. I may try the left hand thing or both hands…or I’ve even thought about coming right out a saying “I’m sorry, I have joint pain from RA and can’t shake your hand.”

    My former neighbor had major hand deformity from RA and he would use it was a segue way into telling about his disease.

  2. I am not currently on any medications and am wearing my compression gloves pretty regularly. I find that when I have them, on as you said, people don’t shake as forcefully. Before I was diagnosed, I would just keep my hands to my sides and tell people that where my family is from we kiss on the cheeks. Then I would go forward as if to kiss them. It worked perfectly for me. Women don’t want you kissing on their husbands and they don’t want you to smudge their makeup! : )

  3. This is often a problem for me as well. Sometimes I find myself in mid-shake before I’ve even thought about it! I try to remember to cup my hand slighty and keep it that way so that the other person can only grab the fingers of my hand. They tend to grasp more gently that way, and it becomes a sort of half-hand shake.

    An elderly man once shook my hand so hard that he brought me to my knees (literally). I could feel my knuckles crunching and tears came to my eyes. I was with my husband on a business trip, and he immediately caught me from behind as I went down. The man just went to the next person–I don’t think he ever realized what he’d done. My hand swelled, and I really think he broke a small bone–but we were out of town and I just kept going. That joint still bothers me when my hands swell. So I do try to be careful. 🙂

  4. Ouch…even the thought of shaking hands makes mine ache more. I can usually avoid it in informal settings by having my hands full, etc. However, its at work that I have trouble avoiding it. I’m a nurse, and its impossible to avoid shaking hands with people over and over throughout the day. Often, I can’t help but grimace when someone grabs my hand hard. Its kind of ironic since I used to be a champion of a firm handshake, and mine’s wimpy on a good day. Maybe someday we’ll find the right meds and my hands won’t hurt so much. Until then, I’ll try a few of your techniques (not at work, of course).

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