Osteoarthritis (OA) is a degenerative joint disease than can affect any joint in your body, including your hands. Hand arthritis is common in the:
- basilar joint that connects your thumb and wrist
- fingertips (DIP joint)
- middle knuckles of the fingers (PIP joint)
When you have OA, the cartilage between your joints wears down and causes your bones to rub together without a cushion. The rubbing causes inflammation, stiffness, and pain. Read on to learn about the symptoms of OA of the hands, how it’s diagnosed, and what treatments can help manage your condition.
The symptoms of hand arthritis differ from person to person. A lot depends on the specific joints affected. Most people will experience:
- an ache when they use their hands
- joint stiffness, which may be more pronounced in the morning
- difficulty moving their fingers
- weak grip
- swelling and tenderness in the knuckles or around the wrist
For some people, bone spurs are a sign of advanced OA. A bone spur is a hardened area of bone that attaches itself to the joint.
In hand arthritis, the spurs are called Heberden’s nodes. They consist of round, hard, swollen areas that develop around the joint near the fingertips. Heberden’s nodes are a permanent condition and often make your fingers look misshapen.
People who have arthritis in the joints in the middle of the fingers can also develop bony nodes called Bouchard’s nodes.
The exact cause of hand arthritis is unknown. The condition develops due to wear and tear of the joint, which occurs gradually over time. A healthy joint has cartilage at the end of the bone that cushions and allows smooth movement. In OA, cartilage deteriorates, which triggers joint pain and stiffness.
Your risk for OA increases if you:
- have a family member who also has degenerative joint pain
- are of older age
- have a job that requires a lot of hand work such as manufacturing
- have a hand injury
The more you use your hands, the more wear and tear you place on the joints and the cartilage that supports them.
There's also a higher risk factor for hand arthritis if you're female. Women are more likely to develop osteoarthritis. People born with malformed joints or defective cartilage are also more likely to develop this condition.
Diagnosing hand arthritis involves a series of tests. Your doctor may check the joints in your hand for symptoms of OA. These symptoms include:
- hand tenderness
- limited range of motion
In most cases, your doctor will also order an X-ray to look for cartilage loss. This can indicate arthritis of the hand and look for potential bone spurs around your joints. Your doctor can also order an MRI to look at your bones and soft tissue.
Symptoms of hand OA can be similar to other joint conditions. Your doctor may also order blood tests. Some doctors even complete a joint fluid analysis to check for signs of inflammation in the hand joints. These tests can help your doctor determine whether if arthritis of the hand or another condition is causing your symptoms.
Pain medication can provide some relief during flare ups. For many, over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications such as ibuprofen and naproxen are effective. Those with severe OA may need a stronger prescription. Your doctor may also prescribe injections if oral drugs aren’t doing the trick. An injection of anti-inflammatory medicines and anesthetics can calm the inflamed joints quickly and lasts for several months.
Stiff, achy fingers can impact how you use your hands, making your daily routine more challenging. People with OA in their hands may find range-of-motion exercises beneficial. Do simple exercises several times each day to help maintain flexibility in your hands.
- Knuckle bends: Bend your middle knuckles as if you were making a claw with your hands. Then straighten your fingers again.
- Fists: Form a fist with your fingers and then unfurl your fingers. Work slowly to avoid pain.
- Finger touches: Touch your thumb to each fingertip in turn. If stretching your thumb hurts, don’t force it.
- Wall walking: Walk your fingers up a wall and then back down.
A few simple lifestyle changes can help manage hand OA. You may find relief with:
- hot and cold compresses for pain and swelling
- splints on your wrist, thumb, or fingers for support
- arthritis-friendly tools that have padding to ease grip
Some people have found relief for OA in the hands with anti-arthritis gloves. These gloves are designed to reduce pain and swelling and may gradually improve mobility in your hands.
The Arthritis Foundation recommends an all-around healthy diet. This includes an abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lean meats. Being overweight can put more pressure on your joints and increase symptoms of OA, especially weight bearing joints.
Foods to look for include:
- red or purple grapes
- red onion
- red apples
- leafy greens
- citrus fruits
Eating produce high in flavonoids may help, too. Fruits and vegetables that are dark colored contain substances that can control inflammation throughout the body.
Surgery is another option if your OA doesn’t respond to diet, medications, and lifestyle changes. Surgical treatment for hand arthritis includes fusing the bones on the sides of the arthritic joint together, or reconstructing the joints.
Fusion limits the movement of the joint and reduces pain and stiffness. Reconstruction uses soft tissue from other places in your body or other inert materials to replace the cartilage that has worn down.
OA of the hand is a progressive disease. This means it starts off slowly and gets worse as the years pass. There is no cure, but treatment can help manage the condition. Early detection and treatment for hand arthritis is key to maintaining a healthy active life with OA.
Understanding possible causes and risk factors for hand arthritis helps prevent or slow OA. Some steps you can take are:
Managing your diabetes: If you have diabetes, controlling your blood sugar reduces your risk. A high glucose level affects how cartilage responds to stress. Diabetes can also trigger inflammation which can cause cartilage loss.
Being physically active: Aim for at least 30 minutes of exercise five times a week. Additionally, take extra precautions when exercising or playing sports to avoid joint injury in your hands. Fractures, dislocations, and ligament tears increase the risk of osteoarthritis.
OA of the hands is a disease that causes pain and limited mobility due to joint inflammation and cartilage loss. Untreated OA of the hands can lead to severe hand mobility and abnormal form. The good news is that hand OA is a treatable and manageable condition. Treatment for OA involves pain medication, exercises, and more.
Preventive measures don’t rule out the possibility of developing OA of the hands, but they can help lower your risk. Talk to your doctor about your OA or your risks for developing it. With treatment, it’s possible to maintain a healthy, active lifestyle.