Medical News Today: How do you manage arthritis in hands?

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 the hands may also be caused by rheumatoid arthritis or post-traumatic arthritis.

What types of arthritis affect the hands?

Arthritic hands folded.
The most common types of arthritis in the hands are osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.

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.


Symptoms

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.

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Osteoarthritis symptoms

  • 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.

Images of arthritis in hands

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.

Home remedies

Medications and physical therapy treatments for patients with arthritis are available. However, home remedies can also help to relieve and reduce some of the symptoms.

Hand exercises

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.

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Splinting

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 creams

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.

Medical treatments for arthritis

In addition to home remedies for arthritis in hands, there are medical treatments a person can use to reduce their symptoms.

Person with arthritis, with medicine pill in palm from prescription drug pot.
NSAIDs or DMARDs may be prescribed to treat and manage the symptoms of arthritis.

These include:

  • nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen or naproxen sodium
  • disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs) for the treatment of RA
  • biologics for the treatment of RA
  • oral steroids or steroid shots to reduce inflammation
  • cortisone injections

In rare cases, a doctor may recommend surgery to treat arthritis in the hands. The type of surgery will depend on the extent of the arthritis and the individual’s lifestyle.

For example, a surgery that fuses two affected bones together is usually a better option for people who are more active.

Those who are less active may prefer a joint replacement. A person should discuss all of their options with a doctor to ensure they understand the risks involved with surgery.


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Prevention

While it is not possible to prevent arthritis, a person can monitor their joints for signs of the disease as they age. Staying active, reducing sugar intake, and not smoking can also reduce the risk of arthritis.

Regularly exercising the hands may help keep the joints functioning for longer. Hand exercises can also reduce pain and stiffness if a person already has arthritis.

While arthritis in the hands may not have a cure, many treatments are available that can ideally prevent arthritis from worsening over time.

The sooner a person seeks treatment, the faster they can find relief and slow the progression of the condition.

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