Many bones in the body, including those of the wrists and hands, are protected by cartilage. Cartilage can wear down over time. As a result, a person can experience a condition known as osteoarthritis.
Another name for this type of arthritis is “wear and tear” arthritis. The most common causes of osteoarthritis include age, repetitive joint movement, trauma, and sex. Genetics can also play a factor in the development of osteoarthritis.
Arthritis in hands may also be caused by rheumatoid arthritis or post-traumatic arthritis.
Fast facts on arthritis in hands:
- Women are more likely than men to experience osteoarthritis.
- There is no cure for any type of arthritis in hands.
- Treatment focuses on relieving the pain and managing the underlying condition.
- In rare instances, a doctor may recommend surgery to repair a severely damaged finger joint.
What types of arthritis affect the hands?
Both osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis (RA) can affect the hands.
While osteoarthritis is due to degenerative changes in cartilage, RA is the result of an autoimmune condition.
RA occurs when the body’s immune system attacks healthy tissue that protects the joints. The resulting symptoms can be similar to those of osteoarthritis, including pain, inflammation, and redness.
RA can occur with no risk factors. However, women are more likely to experience the condition than men. Those with a family history of RA, who are obese, or who smoke are also at a greater risk of developing it.
While a person can experience RA at any age, the most common age of onset is between 40 and 60.
A person can also experience post-traumatic arthritis in the hands. This occurs after a person has damaged their hands, such as in a sport-related injury or accident.
Broken or sprained fingers or wrists can also cause post-traumatic arthritis. Injuries can accelerate the breakdown of protective cartilage as well as cause inflammation.
Most types of arthritis cause:
- pain with movement or when at rest
- joint swelling
- joint stiffness
- joint deformity
- weakness and loss of muscle mass
- loss of joint and muscle function
Symptoms differ slightly depending on the type of arthritis. These differences can help a doctor determine the correct underlying cause of arthritis symptoms in the hands.
- bony lumps (known as nodes or nodules) at the middle finger joint
- bony lumps or nodes at the finger joint closest to the fingernail
- pain that occurs deep under the base of the thumb
- stiffness, especially in the morning
- difficulty pinching and gripping items
Rheumatoid arthritis symptoms
- pain at the wrist and finger knuckles
- deformities of the wrist and fingers where they will not straighten
- tendon ruptures, which affect the ability of the fingers to straighten
- unexplained fatigue
- flu-like achiness throughout the body
Post-traumatic arthritis symptoms
- pain, primarily where the former injury occurred
- worsening deformity following an injury
Many of the post-traumatic arthritis symptoms are similar to those of RA and osteoarthritis. However, with post-traumatic arthritis, a person can usually attribute their symptoms to a previous injury.
How is it diagnosed?
Questions a doctor may ask to help diagnose arthritis in the hands include:
- When did the symptoms start?
- What makes them worse?
- What makes the symptoms better?
- Have there been any injuries to the hands recently?
- Are there other symptoms (fever, weight loss, rash, unexplained fatigue, dry eyes, or dry mouth)?
A doctor will also perform a physical examination of the hands to identify any abnormalities. Doctors are specifically looking for deformities in the hand, such as slightly crooked fingers or distinct nodules.
They may also order imaging tests, such as an X-ray or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan.
A doctor may also test the blood for the presence inflammation and immune markers. If a joint is swollen and has fluid in it, the fluid may be aspirated (removed) and analyzed.
Exercises can help to keep the supportive ligaments and tendons in the hands flexible and may also help reduce pain in the hands.
To help alleviate arthritic pain in the hands, a person can try:
- Making a loose fist and opening the fingers to fully straighten them, repeating this several times on each hand.
- Bending a finger slowly and carefully, then slowly straightening it out again, and repeating with all fingers.
- Placing the hand on a flat surface with fingers extended and slowly lifting each finger off the surface. Hold the finger at the highest point it can reach for 3 to 5 seconds. Repeat with each finger.
It is best to do these exercises using gentle motions. Physical therapists who specialize in hands may be able to recommend exercises as well.
Resting the hands from activities that cause pain and overuse can also help to reduce pain.
Hot and cold therapy
Applying ice to swollen joints for 10 minutes at a time can help reduce swelling. The ice should always have a protective covering, such as a cloth, to prevent skin damage.
Heat therapy can sometimes help to ease stiff joints. Placing the hands in a tub of warm water can help.
Paraffin wax treatments have also been proven to be soothing and help ease stiffness and pain. Wax treatments should only be done under the supervision of a physical therapist.
Splinting can involve wearing a protective brace on the hand, which may resemble a fingerless glove.
There are also “sleeve” brace options that will fit a single finger or multiple fingers, depending on the source of arthritis pain.
By holding the joint still, these braces ideally reduce the incidence of pain.
Capsaicin uses a compound from cayenne pepper to relieve pain. A person can make capsaicin cream by adding 2 to 3 sprinkles of cayenne pepper to 2 to 3 teaspoons of olive oil and applying to the hands.
Do not use this preparation on broken skin or skin with a cut. A person may experience a tingling sensation after applying the cream or oil.
A person should avoid touching their eyes and mouth after using this method, as it can cause pain and burning.
If symptoms of arthritis in your hands or elsewhere are preventing you from participating in the physical activities you used to enjoy — and that are good for you — it may be time to find new ways to be active. For example, you may want to experiment with water activities (which are easier on the joints) such as swimming, or try tai chi, dance, or walking (which has the added benefit of being low-cost).
If symptoms of arthritis in your hands are starting to trouble you, it is important to keep both your hands and body active. If you have doubts about how to do this safely, talk to your doctor. Exercise is a wise investment in your long-term comfort and health.