What Is Finger Arthritis?

Signs, symptoms, and treatment

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Our fingers are important! We use them constantly, all day long: to brush our teeth, to send emails, to cook our meals. When arthritis affects the fingers, everyday tasks become difficult and painful. So what can we do when our finger joints begin to cause problems?

This article provides more information about arthritis in the fingers, what causes it, and what you can do to help keep your fingers moving.

Symptoms of finger arthritis

Verywell / Cindy Chung

Types of Finger Arthritis

There are three types of arthritis that commonly affect the fingers:

  • OsteoarthritisOsteoarthritis, also called wear-and-tear arthritis, is the most common type of finger arthritis. Osteoarthritis causes normal cartilage to wear away. This exposes bare bone at the joints. The most frequently affected joints in the hand are the knuckles of the mid-finger and fingertip (the PIP and DIP joints) and the joint at the base of the thumb.
  • Rheumatoid arthritisRheumatoid arthritis causes a different type of joint destruction. Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune condition that affects the whole body. It causes the immune system to attack the soft tissues surrounding the joints. The most commonly affected joints in the hand are the knuckles at the base of the fingers (the MCP joints).
  • Gout: Gout is a condition that occurs when crystals develop within the joints. These crystals can form in one or more joints when there is too much of a substance called uric acid in the body. While the big toe is the most commonly affected part of the body, gout can also develop in finger joints.

Rarely, other types of arthritis can also cause problems in the fingers.

Finger Arthritis Symptoms

Symptoms of finger arthritis include:

  • Joint pain
  • Swelling
  • Stiffness
  • Loss of motion

Osteoarthritis often also causes lumps or nodules around the knuckles of the fingers. These lumps are called Heberden's nodes when they are around the knuckle closest to the fingertip, or Bouchard's nodes when they are around the middle knuckle.

These lumps are actually bone spurs around the joints. They can make the knuckles enlarged, swollen, and stiff. People who have enlarged joints due to osteoarthritis often complain that their rings do not fit or can't be removed.

Rheumatoid arthritis often causes similar symptoms. However, rheumatoid arthritis can actually cause deformities in the hands. Inflammation in the joints can cause finger joints to become crooked and bend away from the thumb.

Causes

A joint is the part of your body where two bones come together. Bones are cushioned by cartilage, which allows smooth movement between the adjoining bones. When the cartilage is damaged, arthritis develops.

When our fingers can't bend and move normally, our daily activities become difficult.

Treatment

Treatment of finger arthritis depends on the underlying cause. The treatment focuses on managing the symptoms and maintaining and improving function.

Treatment options include:

  • Anti-Inflammatory medications: These medications are often recommended for treating the pain of finger arthritis, and they help decrease inflammation and swelling around the joints. You should always check with your healthcare provider before starting any new medication, even over-the-counter medications.
  • Joint supplements: Joint supplements consist of glucosamine and chondroitin, two of the major building blocks of normal cartilage. These supplements are very safe to use. Although the clinical data to support their use is weak, many people say they find them helpful.
  • Cortisone injections: Cortisone is a powerful anti-inflammatory steroid medication, and it can be useful in limited applications in the hand. While it's not good to have frequent cortisone injections, an occasional shot may help calm a flare of arthritis.
  • Hand therapy: Hand therapy, usually performed by an occupational therapist, is helpful to maintain motion and prevent stiffening of the joints.
  • Ice and heat treatment: Joint stiffness and range of motion can be improved by ice and heat treatments. Most people with finger arthritis find that warming the hands with a warm washcloth or in moderately hot water is helpful for relieving the stiffness of arthritic fingers.
  • Splints: Splinting helps to relax and rest the joints. Splinting should be done for limited periods of time to allow for relief without allowing the joint to stiffen.

Surgery

If non-surgical treatments don't relieve your symptoms, surgery may be necessary. Several different procedures can be done, depending on the joint that's involved and the effects of your arthritis. Your healthcare provider may recommend removing bone spurs, or even fusing or replacing the joint.

Joint Fusion

The most common surgery that's done for treatment of finger arthritis is a finger joint fusion. This procedure is done to hold the knuckle in a fixed position to prevent movement of the joint. The joint becomes stiff forever, which limits your range of motion, and the pain is usually alleviated. During this procedure, your healthcare provider can also straighten deformities and remove bone spurs.

Joint Replacement

Finger joint replacement can be a very effective procedure for some people. An artificial finger joint can maintain mobility of the joint without the pain of arthritis. Deformities and bone spurs can also be treated during this surgical procedure.

In general, finger joint replacement is only considered for more sedentary or elderly individuals, because the artificial joints are not designed for strenuous activity or heavy labor. The implants, which may be made of metal, plastic, ceramic, or a combination of materials, can wear out over time and need to be protected from too much activity.

Summary

Finger arthritis can be painful and may limit your daily activities. If you are experiencing joint pain, stiffness, or swelling in your hands, talk to your healthcare provider about your concerns. They can help determine whether arthritis is to blame and help you manage your symptoms so they don't get worse.

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