An overview of hand arthritis

Whether carrying a plate of food, drinking a cup of tea or typing away on a keyboard, our fingers, hands and wrists are in use numerous times every single day. Should we experience a problem with one or both of our hands, we quickly realise just how much we rely on them.

There are many conditions that can cause pain, stiffness or swelling in the hands and wrists. One of the most common is a form of arthritis known as osteoarthritis.

Expert support for your hand arthritis concerns

Early diagnosis and prompt treatment for arthritis in the hand can be invaluable. If you are concerned or worried about any pain, swelling or stiffness in your hands, why not book a consultation with one of our experienced hand doctors at Circle Reading? We have no waiting lists, so can easily book an appointment for you at a convenient time. Please contact your Circle hospital today to schedule your consultation.

This hub explains more about arthritis in the hand, including:

  • Hand and wrist anatomy
  • What is arthritis?
  • Osteoarthritis in the hand
  • Symptoms of hand arthritis
  • Diagnosing hand arthritis
  • Non-surgical treatments for hand arthritis
  • Surgical treatments for hand arthritis
  • Risks and complications
  • Why Circle?

Find out more about hand surgery at Circle Health

Hand and wrist surgery at Circle Reading Hospital

Hand and wrist anatomy

Your hand and wrist contain a total of 27 bones, with 8 bones in the wrist (known as the ‘carpal bones’) and 19 bones in the hand (known as the ‘metacarpals’ and ‘phalanges’).

Joints are formed in the body where bones need to move around or over one another. The hands and wrists contain a number of joints within them. It is these joints that give us the ability to move our fingers, hands and wrists in such a wide variety of ways. It is also these joints that can cause such debilitating problems in people suffering from arthritis.

Unlike many other joints in the body, such as the knee and hip, the joints in the hand and wrist are not weight-bearing. This is beneficial should surgery be required for severe arthritis, as it means that simpler surgical options are available that aren’t an option for weight-bearing joints. You can read more about the surgical options for hand arthritis here.

What is arthritis?

Arthritis is a condition that affects the joints of the body. It can occur in people of all ages, including children. There are a number of different types of arthritis, including:

  • Osteoarthritis; This is the most common type of arthritis in the UK. While it can develop quickly, it more often causes small, subtle changes in the finger and wrist joints, so that many people don’t notice any symptoms in the hand until they become more pronounced.
  • Rheumatoid arthritis; Caused by the immune system attacking the joints, leading to swelling, damage and sometime a change in the shape of the joint itself. This can be particularly marked in the hand, where finger joints can become visibly swollen and disfigured.
  • Gout; Caused by too much uric acid in the body, this is usually seen in the big toe although it can also sometimes occur in the hand and wrist.

Arthritis cannot be cured but the damage inflicted on the joints can be minimised with timely diagnosis.  Your Circle doctor will be able to give you expert and up-to-date advice on the best treatments available to help reduce your symptoms, manage any pain and limit the effect it has on your ability to enjoy life.

Osteoarthritis in the hand

Osteoarthritis is the most common type of arthritis in the hand. The bones in your hand and wrist have a lining of cartilage at their ends, known as articular cartilage. In a healthy joint this articular cartilage is smooth, helping the bones in the joint to move against one another freely. Osteoarthritis causes parts of this cartilage to thin. As a result, the bones start rubbing when they move over one another. Over time, this rubbing of uneven surfaces together causes damage to the joint, leading to the pain, stiffness and swelling associated with osteoarthritis.

Our bodies are normally very good at trying to repair damage, but osteoarthritis means that the damage to the joint occurs more rapidly than the body can repair itself. In some cases, the healing process itself can lead to the formation of new bony growths in the joint called osteophytes. These hard lumps of bone can reduce movement in the joint. As they rub against nearby soft tissues, symptoms can be aggravated, leading to further stiffness, swelling and pain in the joint.  

Symptoms of hand arthritis

The exact symptoms you experience will vary depending on the type of arthritis you have and how developed it is. The symptoms listed below are intended for guidance. If you have any of these symptoms you should see a specialist hand doctor for an accurate diagnosis.

  • Loss of grip: You may notice that you have lost some of the grip strength in your hand. It may be harder to carry out everyday tasks, such as twisting a tap or opening a jar.
  • Pain: While we all experience aches and pains from time to time, you may feel pain in your hand only when you use the fingers in a certain way. This may often be felt at the base of the thumb, where the thumb meets the wrist. Arthritic pain is often dull but constant, although it tends to become more pronounced as it develops, and the joint becomes increasingly worn.
  • Seizing up in a joint: You may find one of the joints in your hand seizing up when using it. If this is one of the joints in a finger, many people find they have to pull the finger a bit and then release it in order to regain free movement in the joint. It can be frustrating, as well as concerning, to have to do this frequently.
  • Stiffness: This is often noticed as arthritis develops and osteophytes begin to form in the joint. You might find your hand movements are much stiffer, lacking their normal agility and flexibility. This can make more difficult to take hold of things quickly or to hold them for any length of time.

It is important to note that these symptoms are not exclusively caused by arthritis and other illnesses, injuries and diseases can cause similar problems. However, these symptoms can often be a good indicator that something is not quite right with your hand. It is sensible in such instances to have things assessed by a doctor for your peace of mind. 

Diagnosing hand arthritis

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