Wrist Arthritis Causes, Symptoms, and Treatments

woman rubbing wrist
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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.


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. Post-traumatic wrist arthritis 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 called the carpal bones and the carpal ligaments. When these structures are injured, the normal movements of these bones become abnormal--this abnormal movement can wear away the cartilage of the wrist joint.
  • Rheumatoid Arthritis: Rheumatoid arthritis is among the most common causes of wrist arthritis. Rheumatoid arthritis is a systemic problem, meaning it affects the entire body. Rheumatoid arthritis causes inflammation of joints; this inflammation can become so severe that it leads to the destruction of the normal bones and cartilage.

    Signs and Symptoms

    Wrist arthritis common 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. Irritation of these nerves 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.


    • Lifestyle Modifications: Many patients with symptoms of wrist arthritis can find successful relief simply by modifying their activities. Avoiding certain movements or avoiding 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.
    • 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, and inflammation is a common problem in patients with wrist arthritis. Discuss with your doctor the possible benefits of a cortisone injection for your wrist arthritis.

      Surgery for Arthritis Pain

      Surgery is most often not needed in the treatment of wrist arthritis but can be performed when symptoms are severe and other treatments have not provided relief. Surgical procedures 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). In the future, wrist replacement surgery may be the standard treatment for severe wrist arthritis.