Finger Osteoarthritis: What You Need to Know

A Painful and Common Form of Osteoarthritis

arthritis hands trying to open prescription medicine pill bottle
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Osteoarthritis can affect joints in any part of the body, including the fingers. Finger osteoarthritis is a common condition among postmenopausal women.

We often take our fingers and hands for granted. During a typical day, notice how much activity depends on hand motion. Recognize the complexity of each movement and how difficult daily activities can become for people living with finger osteoarthritis.

The Anatomy of Your Fingers

Finger anatomy is intricate. In order to fully understand how osteoarthritis may affect your fingers, it's a good idea to know something about the bones and joints that may be impacted. This may also help you speak with your doctor about your symptoms and treatment.

The bones in the palm of the hand are called metacarpal bones. One metacarpal connects to each finger and the thumb. Each finger is made of small bone shafts, called phalanges. The knuckle joints closest to the wrist (metacarpophalangeal or MCP joints) are formed by the connection of the phalanges to the metacarpals. The MCP joint functions like a hinge when the fingers are bent or straightened.

The three phalanges in each finger are separated by two joints, called interphalangeal or IP joints. The one closest to the MCP is called the proximal interphalangeal or PIP joint. The joint near the end of the finger is called the distal interphalangeal or DIP joint. IP joints also work like hinge joints.

The Causes of Finger Osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis is a degenerative joint disease. With this type of arthritis, cartilage — a tough, but flexible tissue that covers the ends of the bones forming a joint — wears away gradually.

Injury to a joint such as a sprain or fracture can cause damage to cartilage. Even if an injury does not directly cause cartilage damage, it can affect how the joint works. Joints can be misaligned after they heal from an injury. Such abnormalities can stress the joint, which can damage cartilage later on.

How Is Finger Osteoarthritis Diagnosed?

The diagnosis of finger osteoarthritis typically starts with a medical history that will include any injuries that may have caused the condition.

A physical exam lets the doctor evaluate the range of motion in the affected finger joints and what movements provoke pain. The appearance of characteristic nodes (Bouchard's or Heberden's nodes) may also help with the diagnosis of finger osteoarthritis.

X-rays are usually ordered so the doctor can see images of the joint damage. This helps them establish how much cartilage remains or if the joint is bone-on-bone in case the cartilage has completely worn away.

Symptoms of Finger Osteoarthritis

Symptoms associated with finger osteoarthritis include pain, stiffness, and swelling. Additionally, the development of nodes may be noted and you may be experiencing a limited range-of-motion or decreased grip strength.

Typically, osteoarthritis pain is felt at the start of an activity, then it diminishes as the activity progresses. After the activity has stopped and during rest, the pain and stiffness usually return. With advanced osteoarthritis, pain can be felt even at rest.

Common Treatment Options

Pain is usually the symptom that causes patients to seek treatment. Early treatment can help manage finger osteoarthritis, so it's a good idea to see a doctor as soon as possible.

Conservative treatment measures are tried first and these may include any of the following:

When conservative treatment fails to produce satisfactory relief, surgery may be the last resort option for treating it. Surgery is indicated for patients with uncontrolled pain that affects normal hand function. Surgical options for finger osteoarthritis include arthrodesis (fusion) or joint replacement, depending on the affected joint.

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