Those suffering with dementia can often be seen clenching their fists. Sometimes the grip is so tight that it actually pains the person if you try to unclench their fist. This is not an uncommon behavior in someone with dementia, specifically Alzheimer’s or Lewy Body Dementia (LBD). Clenching fists seems harmless in comparison to some other things that dementia does to a person, but it can in fact cause some very serious issues. So, in this post we want to give you as much information as possible so you can help your loved one prevent serious side effects.
As with most things, no two people will be the same. The following are just examples of what could be causing the clenched fists, and you should seek advice from your doctor for an individual diagnosis. To be clear, clenched fists are a symptom of dementia, but just because someone is clenching their fists does not mean that they are experiencing memory loss. Nervous, confusion, anger or anxiousness could lead anyone to clenching their fists.
Anxiety could lead to clenched fists. The action of clenching fists helps the brain focus. Additionally, it is a side effect of some neurological conditions such as LBD.
It is very important to properly treat clenched fists in someone with dementia. Tightly clenched fists over a long period of time can lead to serious health issues such as infection. There are a few options for treating the side effects of clenched fists. Since it is nearly impossible to prevent the action of clenching fists it is best to focus efforts on treating symptoms.
If at all possible, try to keep the fingernails trimmed short. You could consider purchasing an electric baby nail file online to help with this. If fingernails are even slightly long the nails will cut the skin when the fists are clenched and this can be very painful. Not only that, but if there are open cuts on the hands then the door is left wide open for infection to come in.
Clean and Dry
Keeping the palms and the area in between the fingers clean and dry is absolutely essential to preventing infection. Depending on the progression, this will prove to be more difficult than you might imagine. Sheepskin is a great option that many dementia caregivers recommend.
Occupational therapists can be a great resource! They can prescribe exercises that will be appropriate for how advanced the tension has become. They can also point you in the right direction for good materials or splints that could be used to adjust the fingers or keep the area clean and dry.
If you are going to attempt to open the fingers, giving pain medication beforehand can make the process smoother and less traumatic for everyone involved. There are also a few scenarios where prescribed medication could help with clenching fists. For example, when the person is clenching their fists due to anxiety or a neurological condition, medication may be able to prevent intense finger curling.
People suffering from dementia become like little children. They sometimes get very attached to comfort items such as a stuffed animal. This can be helpful when trying to prevent clenched fists. A small teddy bear or meaningful stuffed animal could help keep the palms more open and dry. We recommend getting multiple of the same stuffed animal to have on hand if possible.
Some other ideas for treatment:
- Prevent infection
- Try to catch it early
If you are worried about the care of your loved one with dementia, The Gables is here to help. We can discuss memory care, respite care, and other options. We understand the amount of time and extensive watchfulness that is required to care for someone with dementia, and want you to know that you are not alone.