Skip to main content

Please note: Effective March 8, the Davis Avenue Parking Garage will be closed.

See our Visitor Information Page>

Health library

Your aching hands: Is it arthritis?

Two hands holding an older hand.

Learn about the causes and symptoms of arthritis in the hands and wrists, as well as treatment options.

Your hands play an important role in many of your daily tasks, such as writing out a grocery list or opening the lid on a jar of peanut butter. But if you have arthritis, everyday activities like these can be painful.

Arthritis in the hands or wrists is a significant problem for many people in the U.S., according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS).

Fortunately, a variety of treatment options can help ease the pain.

Causes of arthritis in the hand and wrist

Both osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis can affect the hands and wrists.

In osteoarthritis, cartilage wears away causing bones to rub together. Causes of osteoarthritis can include:

  • Normal wear and tear on the joint.
  • An injury.

A joint that's been injured is nearly seven times more likely to develop arthritis than an uninjured joint, even if the injury is properly treated, according to the AAOS. Arthritis can even develop years later as the result of a childhood injury.

One place in the hand often affected by osteoarthritis is the joint where the thumb attaches to the wrist. This joint allows the thumb to swivel and pinch so you can grip things. Arthritis of the thumb is seen most often in women over age 40, according to the AAOS. If you have arthritis in the thumb, you may notice symptoms such as swelling at the base of the thumb and pain when trying to do things such as turn a key or snap your fingers.

Rheumatoid arthritis is an inflammatory disease that affects the lining of the joints. It's caused by a malfunction in the immune system.

Rheumatoid arthritis usually starts in smaller joints, so the fingers and wrists will typically have symptoms before the knees and hips, according to the National Institutes of Health. The disease usually happens in a symmetrical pattern. This means if one wrist has arthritis, so will the other one. People with this form of arthritis may have other symptoms such as fatigue or a fever.

Signs of arthritis

The first symptoms of arthritis in the hands or wrists might be a dull aching or burning sensation after heavy gripping or grasping. The pain might get better with rest and get worse the more you use your hands.

According to the AAOS you might also experience the following symptoms:

  • Pain and stiffness—these symptoms may be particularly bad in the morning.
  • Swelling.
  • Limited motion.
  • Weakness.

Swelling in the wrist joint could eventually lead to carpal tunnel syndrome because it puts pressure on the nerves that travel through the wrists.

Symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis can also spread to other joints in the body, such as the knees or feet.

Treatment options

Relief from pain and swelling are the main goals of early treatment when you have arthritis.

Your doctor will treat your symptoms based on the type of arthritis you have. For instance, rheumatoid arthritis can affect other parts of your body in addition to the joints, so the medicines your doctor prescribes will be different from those for a person who has osteoarthritis.

In addition to medications, your doctor may also recommend specific exercises to ease pain. In some cases, wearing a splint to protect the affected joint can help.

You might also want to try changing the way you do the activities that cause pain. Find everyday tips for managing daily tasks when you have arthritis.

If initial treatments don't help, you might need surgery. Types of surgery for arthritis in the hand and wrist include:

Joint fusion. In this procedure, doctors fuse the joint together to relieve arthritis pain. The downside to this procedure is that the joint can no longer move.

Joint replacement. This is a surgery option for people with arthritis of the hand or wrist. The diseased joint is replaced with artificial parts, such as long-lasting metal or ceramic implants. Most of the major joints of the hand and wrist can be replaced with these implants. If it is the thumb joint affected by arthritis, the surgeon can remove part of the joint and reconstruct it with a tendon graft or an artificial substance.

Talk with your doctor

Whether arthritis pain affects your hands, wrists or other parts of your body, it's not something you have to live with. See your doctor about ways to ease arthritis pain.

Reviewed 3/22/2024

Related stories