Arthritis doesn’t just attack your knees and hips. It also can affect your hands and wrists — even your toes. If you often experience achy and swollen hands, you know what we’re talking about.
Truthfully, though, hand arthritis is different from arthritis in the knee, as it’s trickier to diagnose. Why? Because not only do many different kinds of arthritis can affect the hands, but also non-arthritis conditions like tendonitis and carpal tunnel bear similar symptoms of pain, swelling and stiffness.
This is the mystery that arthritis and pain specialists have been trying to solve for decades. The process starts by asking four questions about each patient’s situation:
- First, what are your signs and symptoms?
- Second, what is your medical history?
- Based on the above, what tests should we run?
- Finally, what is the cause of your pain?
Each kind of arthritis develops differently and has distinct but subtle differences in symptoms. Let’s discuss those here as well as a few treatment options you have available.
What are the Symptoms of Hand Arthritis?
Although the aforementioned pain, stiffness and swelling are clear signs of hand and wrist arthritis, not every patient will experience them. Your symptoms and how severely you feel them will depend on which specific type of arthritis you might have and how advanced the disease is.
Common symptoms of arthritis in the hands include:
- Pain: The most common symptom, pain is the body’s way of telling you something is wrong. It’s also one of the earliest signs of hand arthritis. Usually, the pain subsides with rest. However, as the disease progresses, arthritis pain will become more frequent, more intense and might even be painful when resting.
- Inflammation: Inflammation often accompanies pain, but not always. As your cartilage breaks down because of osteoarthritis, the joint becomes stressed and damaged. This can result in inflammation. However, rheumatoid arthritis (RA) might also be the cause.
- Warm to the touch: Just like when any other part of your body becomes inflamed, arthritic finger joints can feel hot and appear red.
- Grinding sound: Also called joint crepitus is caused by rough, partially broken down pieces of cartilage rubbing against one another. In severe cases, the bones can actually grind together.
- Cysts: Technically called myxoid cysts, these typically aren’t painful, unless they grow under the nail — but that’s rare. Such cysts tell our specialists that the synovial tissue in your joint is breaking down, which is a strong indication of osteoarthritis.
- Nodules: Often a sign of osteoarthritis, these bony swellings — officially called Heberden’s nodes — are the result of new bone growth from the breakdown of cartilage.
Which Types of Arthritis Affect the Wrists and Fingers?
Now that you know the common symptoms of hand arthritis, let’s discuss common types of arthritis affecting the hands and their distinct symptoms and differentiators.
Osteoarthritis (OA) is the most common type of arthritis, as it impacts more than 30 million U.S. adults. Known as the wear-and-tear disease, it can technically affect any joint in the body, but it most commonly affects the hands, hips and knees. Symptoms of osteoarthritis include all of the ones listed above — pain, inflammation, grinding, cysts, nodules — except for warmth and redness, which is more associated with the inflammation caused by RA.
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disease in which your immune system attacks your own body. It can target any part of your body but most often focuses on the membranes that surround your joints. The most pronounced symptom of RA is inflammation, followed by pain, swelling, stiffness, heat and redness.
It’s important to tell your doctor if you have been diagnosed with RA or have had blood tests indicating a possibility of inflammatory arthritis. The reason is that RA has symptoms similar to psoriatic arthritis (PsA), and they are two distinct forms of arthritis with completely different treatment regimens.
If you are experiencing joint pain and have been diagnosed with psoriasis, it’s important to tell your doctor. Some patients with this skin condition can eventually develop a special kind of arthritis specific to only that disease.
PsA, in contrast to RA, can cause your fingers to swell up so much that they resemble sausages. It’s less common than RA, since it only affects patients with psoriasis, but your arthritis specialist must address it with targeted measures.
Gout most often affects your feet, specifically the big toe, rather than the hands. It occurs when higher-than-normal levels of uric acid appear in your bloodstream. This causes urate crystals to form in the joints, which can cause inflammation, swelling, redness, and heat. Gout often comes in the form of “gout attacks” — while sporadic in nature, you can prevent flare-ups by changing your diet and taking prescription medication.
Post-traumatic arthritis (PTA) emerges when you suffer from an acute injury to your joints, such as breaking or fracturing a bone that occurs through the joint. Even when properly treated, PTA can accelerate the wearing-out process of nearby joints and can cause osteoarthritis in patients.
What Else Can Cause Hand Pain?
All of that said, the symptoms you’re experiencing may not be caused by arthritis at all. Pain and inflammation in the hands can be caused by a variety of other conditions, including but not limited to:
- Carpal tunnel syndrome
- Ganglion cysts
- Dupuytren’s contracture
Treatments for Hand Arthritis
Once your doctor identifies the cause(s) of your hand and wrist pain, they will work with you to determine the best treatment route. While the below list should never replace a specialist’s treatment, here are a few common treatments doctors often recommend for wrist and hand arthritis.
- Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs): This includes aspirin, ibuprofen and other medications that reduce inflammation, decrease fever and prevent blood clots.
- Disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs): This is an immunosuppressant that treats autoimmune diseases, specifically rheumatoid arthritis.
- Cortisone injections: These injections contain a corticosteroid, a drug that mimics hormones that naturally occur in the body to reduce inflammation. This can reduce stiffness, swelling and pain. .
- Splint: This prevents the joint from moving, which will help reduce pain and inflammation.
- Applying heat or cold: The rule of thumb is “Heat in the morning, cold pack at night.” Heat loosens up a stiff joint, while cold helps reduce inflammation after a day’s use of the hands and wrists.
- Hand and wrist exercises: These will helps loosen a stiff joint as well as strengthen the muscles supporting your joints. Healthline has a great guide for hand and wrist exercises.
- Surgery: This is the last resort when nothing else works. These can range from reconstructive procedures to joint fusions.
If You are Experiencing Hand and Wrist Pain
Our recommendation is “Don’t wait until it’s too late!”
It’s better to get ahead of the disease than wait for it to progress to a more advanced stage. Plus, it may not even be arthritis, which is all the more reason you should consult a hand specialist, pain management specialist or an arthritis specialist. The more you know about a potential issue with your body, the more options and time you have for treatment.