Arthritis of the Wrist

Arthritis affects millions of people in the United States. Often, arthritis strikes at the weightbearing joints of the body, such as the knees and the shoulders. But a significant number of people suffer from arthritis in their wrists and hands that make it difficult for them to perform the activities of daily living.

Although there are hundreds of kinds of arthritis, most wrist pain is caused by just two types:

  • Osteoarthritis (OA) is a progressive condition that destroys the smooth articular cartilage covering the ends of bones. The bare bones rub against each other, resulting in pain, stiffness and weakness. OA can develop due to normal “wear-and-tear” on the wrist or as a result of a traumatic injury to the forearm, wrist or ligaments.
  • Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a systemic inflammatory disease that affects the joint linings and destroys bones, tissues, and joints. Rheumatoid arthritis often starts in smaller joints, like those found in the hand and wrist, and is symmetrical, meaning that it usually affects the same joint on both sides of the body.

Signs and symptoms

  • OA of the wrist joint manifests with swelling, pain, limited motion and weakness. These symptoms are usually limited to the wrist joint itself.
  • RA of the wrist joint usually manifests will swelling, tenderness, limited motion and decreased grip strength. In addition, hand function may be impaired and there may be pain in the knuckle joints (metacarpophalangeal or MP joints).
  • Joint swelling may also put pressure on the nerves that travel through the wrist. This can cause a lesion to develop (compression neuropathy) or lead to carpal tunnel syndrome.

Diagnosis and treatment

Six bones make up the wrist joint: the two bones of the lower arm (the radius and the ulna) and four wrist bones (the carpals). Your physician will use a combination of physical examination, patient history, and tests to diagnose arthritis of the wrist. X-rays can help distinguish among various forms of arthritis. Some, but not all, forms of RA can be confirmed by a laboratory blood test.

In general, early treatment is nonsurgical and designed to help relieve pain and swelling. Several therapies can be used to treat arthritis, including:

  • Modifying your activities.
  • Immobilizing the wrist for a short time in a splint.
  • Taking anti-inflammatory medications such as aspirin or ibuprofen.
  • Following a prescribed exercise program.
  • Getting a steroid injection into the joint.

Your physician may prescribe other therapies, depending on the type of arthritis you have. For example, additional therapies for patients with rheumatoid arthritis include antimalarial drugs, antimetabolites, gold, immunosuppresive drugs (both non-steroidal and corticosteroids) and newer genetically-engineered medications.

When such conservative methods are no longer effective, or if hand function decreases, surgery is an option. The goal of surgery is to relieve pain; depending on the type of surgery, joint function may also be affected. Surgical options include removing the arthritic bones, joint fusion (making the joint solid and preventing any movement at the wrist) and joint replacement. You and your physician should discuss the options and select the one that is best for you.

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