An Overview of Wrist Arthritis

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Wrist arthritis is often the cause of wrist pain, and it becomes more and more common as we age. Wrist arthritis occurs when the normally smooth cartilage surfaces of the wrist joints are worn away and uneven bony surfaces are exposed. The wrist joint can become stiff, swollen, and painful. Wrist arthritis is most common in elderly people, but can sometimes be found in younger people too.

Signs and Symptoms

Wrist arthritis commonly leads to the following symptoms:

  • Wrist pain
  • Swelling around the joint
  • Difficulty gripping objects

In addition, patients with significant inflammation or bone spurs can have irritation to the nerves that surround the joint. This can cause tingling and numbness in the fingers, a syndrome called carpal tunnel syndrome.

Patients with rheumatoid arthritis commonly have inflammation of the finger joints in addition to having arthritis of the wrist.

Causes

The most common reasons people develop wrist arthritis include:

  • Prior wrist injuries: Post-traumatic arthritis occurs when the joint surface wears away following an injury to the wrist joint cartilage. This most commonly occurs when there is a fracture of the wrist that involves the cartilage surface of the joint. If the fracture extends into the joint surface, the cartilage can become uneven and prone to wrist arthritis.
  • Wrist instability: Wrist instability occurs after injuries to the small ligaments and bones in the wrist (carpal bones and carpal ligaments). When these structures are injured, their normal movement is affected, leading to a wearing away of wrist joint cartilage.
  • Rheumatoid arthritis: Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is among the most common causes of wrist arthritis. RA is a systemic disease, meaning it affects the entire body. The associated inflammation of joints can become so severe that it leads to the destruction of normal bone and cartilage.

Diagnosis

A doctor can make a wrist arthritis diagnosis by reviewing one's symptoms and medical history and performing a physical exam. With the physical exam, your doctor will examine the wrist for pain, swelling, and tenderness. The location of swelling can help the doctor to determine which parts or the wrist are affected (for example, the joints or tendons).

The doctor will also want to examine your range of motion to determine whether arthritis is mild or severe, or if there is another condition causing symptoms, such as carpal tunnel syndrome.  Your doctor may ask you to twist and flex the wrists in every direction to determine range and to see if movement causes pain in the wrists and thumbs.

If wrist arthritis is suspected, the next step is to perform X-rays and blood work to determine what type of arthritis you may have. Blood tests can look for certain antibody proteins and inflammation markers to determine or rule out inflammatory arthritis, such as RA, while imaging can determine if joint damage exists and, if so, the extent of it.

Treatment

Some treatment options are things you can easily do at home that can have a big impact on your pain. That said, patients often must use these suggestions in conjunction with medical treatments.

Home Remedies and Lifestyle

These options work best when you are committed to following them day in and day out:

  • Lifestyle modifications: Many patients with symptoms of wrist arthritis can find successful relief simply by modifying their activities. Avoiding certain movements or tasks, such as lifting and carrying heavy loads, may provide relief from wrist arthritis.
  • Wrist splint: Support braces can help patients who have wrist arthritis. These braces act as a gentle support to wrist movements. They will not prevent severe injuries but may help you perform simple activities.
  • Heat applications: Heat applications are among the most commonly used treatments for wrist arthritis.

Medications

Medication is often needed to tame inflammation and provide added pain relief:

  • Anti-inflammatory medicationsNonsteroidal anti-inflammatory pain medications, commonly referred to as NSAIDs, are some of the most commonly prescribed medications, especially for patients with pain caused by problems such as wrist arthritis.
  • Cortisone injectionsCortisone is a powerful medication that treats inflammation. Discuss the possible benefits of a cortisone injection for your wrist arthritis with your doctor.

Surgery

Surgery is not often needed in the treatment of wrist arthritis, but it can be performed when symptoms are severe and other treatments have not provided relief.

Surgical procedures for wrist arthritis include:

  • Wrist fusion: A wrist fusion is a procedure that eliminates all movement at the wrist joint by securing the bones of the forearm to the bones in the wrist and hand. A fusion provides predictable relief of pain from wrist arthritis, but the loss of motion can prevent some normal activities.
  • Proximal row carpectomy: A proximal row carpectomy is a procedure to remove three of the small bones of the wrist joint. By removing the arthritic bone, pain is diminished. Because there is no fusion, the motion is preserved. Proximal row carpectomy is only an option for some types of wrist arthritis but can provide excellent pain relief while preserving motion.
  • Wrist replacement: A wrist replacement surgery is performed to remove the damaged bone and replace it with a metal and plastic implant. Not many wrist replacements are being performed, and the results are not as predictable as some other surgical procedures (such as knee replacements and hip replacements).

A Word From Verywell

There are many types of arthritis and most affect the wrist. The severity will depend on the type and whether that type is chronic. Chronic forms of arthritis are long-lasting and often permanent. Although there is no cure for chronic arthritis, many of the treatment options noted above can help relieve symptoms and even slow down joint damage. Treatment can also help you to manage wrist pain and stay active. 

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Article Sources

Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial policy to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  • Cleveland Clinic. Arthritis of the Wrist and Hand. Updated January 4, 2017. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/7082-arthritis-of-the-wrist-and-hand

  • Mayo Clinic. Wrist Pain. Updated October 26, 2017. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/wrist-pain/symptoms-causes/syc-20366213