Wrist & Hand Arthritis

Arthritis in the Hand, Wrist, and Fingers

Multiple small joints work together within the hand and wrist to provide our range of motion. When one or more of these joints are damaged, the condition is classified as arthritis. Although there are over 100 forms of the condition, the types that most commonly affect the hand or wrist are osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.

Any joint in the fingers or wrist can be affected by arthritis. The condition frequently results in pain for those affected, and may also result in a reduced range of motion as joints become stiff and sore. Left untreated, it can eventually result in joint deformity that cripples the hand and leads to functional loss.

For people affected by arthritis in the hand or wrist, many daily activities become increasingly difficult. Movements that require fine motor skills such as tying shoelaces, gripping objects and turning keys can become harder, affecting the sufferer’s independence.

What Causes Arthritis?

There is no single answer to this question – different types of arthritis have different causes; and these causes often act together.
That being said, the most common forms of arthritis are the result of ‘wear and tear’ of the joints, trauma or immune system dysfunction. Some people are genetically predisposed to develop the disease due to their genetics, whereas other cases are triggered by environmental conditions such as overuse or injury.

Osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis and is the result of joint cartilage wearing away over time. Rheumatoid arthritis is an immune disease that causes the joint lining (synovium) to swell, which causes pain and stiffness in the joint.

Can you get arthritis in your hand at a young age?

Arthritis can affect people of any age, but is more common in people over the age of 60. It’s estimated that over 80% of people over the age of 75 have arthritic joint damage. Although arthritis affects both men and women, women are more likely to develop the disease.

Symptoms of Arthritis

Arthritis in the hand or wrist share a range of symptoms, including:

  • Pain and stiffness, often accompanied by a burning sensation
  • A red and/or swollen appearance after use
  • The affected joint/s feeling warm to the touch
  • Weakness of the hand or wrist due to pain and loss of motion
  • Diminished ability to grip and pinch
  • A grinding, clicking or cracking sound when moving the joint
  • In advanced cases, joint/s may appear larger than normal

If arthritis is affecting the ends of the fingers, small mucous cysts within the joints may cause dents or ridges in the nail plate to appear.

How is arthritis of the hand or wrist diagnosed?

If you are experiencing symptoms of arthritis, you may want to visit orthopaedic surgeon Dr James McLean in one of his Adelaide practice locations. During your consultation, Dr McLean will physically examine your hands and ask you questions about your symptoms and family history. X-rays are commonly used to diagnose arthritis. In cases of rheumatoid arthritis, a blood test may also be used.

Treatment options for arthritis of the hand or wrist

A variety of treatment options exist to aid the management of arthritic conditions. Treatment options for arthritis of the hand or wrist depend on the disease’s progression, how many joints are involved, your age and activity level and your personal lifestyle goals.

The most common medications for arthritis are anti-inflammatories such as ibuprofen. Anti-inflammatories work to stop the body from producing the chemicals that cause joint swelling and pain.

Ice helps reduce swelling and pain, while heat may help your joints loosen up.

Cutting back or stopping altogether the activities that are causing pain can give your affected fingers or wrist a chance for inflammation to ease. Splinting can also help keep the affected joint/s still for a time, although wearing one for too long can lead to muscle deterioration.

Glucosamine is a compound involved in the building of cartilage. It can sometimes provide relief from symptoms of arthritis, although there is no definitive evidence that it actually helps.

A hand therapist can provide therapeutic exercises that may ease symptoms and promote healthy joint function.

Injecting the joints with a steroidal solution may relieve symptoms for a period of time. These injections sometimes need to be repeated and are not suitable for long-term use.

When non-surgical measures don not adequately relieve symptoms, or when arthritis interferes too much with daily life, Dr McLean may recommend surgical intervention.

Surgical treatment options for arthritis of the hand or wrist

Surgical options aim to reduce symptoms and improve joint function. Dr McLean is a locally and internationally trained orthopaedic surgeon with a special interest in key-hole and reconstructive surgery. He uses minimally invasive treatments wherever possible so patients experience minimal physical trauma and can get back to their normal lives as quickly as possible.

Depending on your individual circumstances, you may consider the following surgical interventions for your condition:

This procedure involves removing the arthritic bone/s and replacing it with a piece of forearm tendon. It can be highly effective for reducing pain and restoring function, particularly in the thumb. This video shows the process of treating thumb arthritis with a tendon transplant

Also called arthrodesis, this option involves fusing the joint to stabilise and strengthen it while also eliminating pain. The downside to this procedure is that the joint can no longer be bent afterward.

This procedure can be useful for those with rheumatoid arthritis. It involves replacing problematic joints with artificial ones. These artificial joints tend to wear down over time.

Length of recovery differs depending on a number of factors including the type and severity of your arthritis, and the type of surgery performed. Dr McLean will provide you with detailed information during your pre- and post-surgery consultations.

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