An Overview of Wrist Arthritis

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

older woman rubbing wrist
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Signs and Symptoms

Wrist arthritis commonly leads to the following symptoms:

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

In addition, it can cause significant inflammation or bone spurs that may irritate the nerves that surround the joint. This can cause carpal tunnel syndrome, with tingling and numbness of the fingers.

If you have rheumatoid arthritis, you can also have inflammation of your finger joints in addition to arthritis of your wrist.

Causes

The most common causes of wrist arthritis include:

  • Prior wrist injuries: Post-traumatic arthritis occurs when the joint surface wears away due to overuse (such as with jackhammer operators) or following an injury to the wrist joint cartilage. This most commonly occurs when a wrist fracture involves the cartilaginous 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, which can lead 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 that 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

Your doctor can diagnose wrist arthritis by reviewing your symptoms and medical history and performing a physical exam. During your physical exam, your doctor will examine your wrist for pain, swelling, and tenderness. The location of your swelling can help your doctor determine which parts of your wrist are affected (for example, the joints or tendons).

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

If wrist arthritis is suspected, the next step might be X-rays and blood work to determine what type of arthritis you may have. Blood tests can detect certain antibody proteins and inflammatory markers to identify or rule out inflammatory arthritis, such as RA, while imaging can visualize the presence and extent of joint damage.

Treatment

Some treatment options can easily be done at home and may have a big impact on your pain. That said, at-home treatments are done 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 people with symptoms of wrist arthritis find relief simply by modifying their activities. Avoiding certain movements or tasks, such as lifting and carrying heavy loads, may provide relief from the symptoms of your wrist arthritis.
  • Wrist splint: Support braces can help some people 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.
  • Occupational therapy: Occupational therapy, under the guidance of a professional, can help you adapt your movements to avoid exacerbating your condition and prevent injuries.
  • 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 pain caused by problems such as wrist arthritis.
  • Cortisone injectionsCortisone is a powerful medication that treats inflammation. You can discuss the potential 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 an option 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 might provide relief of wrist arthritis pain, but the loss of motion can prevent some normal activities.
  • Proximal row carpectomy: A proximal row carpectomy is a procedure in which three of the small bones of the wrist joint are removed. When the arthritic bone is removed, pain is diminished. Because there is no fusion, the wrist motion is preserved. Proximal row carpectomy is only an option for some types of wrist arthritis.
  • Wrist replacement: A wrist replacement surgery is the removal of the damaged bone, followed by replacement with a metal and plastic implant. It's not a common procedure 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 involve the wrist. Chronic forms of arthritis are often permanent. Although there is no cure for chronic arthritis, treatment can relieve symptoms, reduce pain, help you stay active, and even slow down joint damage. 

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