You likely know someone who has arthritis — or perhaps you have it yourself. Arthritis is a common condition. It has wide-ranging effects on multiple areas of the body and can involve any major joint. It most commonly affects the larger joints of the extremities, such as:
However, arthritis can affect any joint in your body.
What is arthritis?
A lot of information about arthritis has been published over the years. It can be hard to distinguish fact from fiction.
Arthritis isn’t a single disease. The term “arthritis” is used to refer to joint inflammation or joint disease. There are 100 different types of arthritis, all with different manifestations and symptoms.
Arthritis of the hands
Arthritis in your hands affects your wrists and joints in your fingers. You may notice:
- limited range of motion
You may regularly experience these symptoms, or it may be days or even weeks before you have a flare-up. Over time you might experience chronic pain, and performing simple activities may prove difficult.
Anatomy of the hand
The anatomy of the hand is unique and complex. Arthritis that affects the hand can be painful and debilitating, given the complexity of the hand and the number of joints it contains. Your hands and wrists are made up of several different bones. Two or more bones meet and form a joint. All of the fingers contain three joints except your thumb, which has two.
The bone surface area near the joint is covered with cartilage. Cartilage makes it possible for your bones to pass smoothly against one another as they move. A fibrous capsule lined with a thin membrane called synovium encloses each joint. This structure secretes a fluid, which lubricates the joints.
Connective tissues called ligaments support and connect bones, and make sure they stay in place. Tendons are another form of connective tissue. They connect muscles to bones, which in turn allows the muscles to move your bones. When arthritis strikes the hand, it usually affects these vital parts.
Types of arthritis that affect the hands
There are different types of arthritis that can affect your hands.
Osteoarthritis (OA), the most common form of arthritis, is a chronic, or long-term, condition. If you have OA, the cartilage that cushions the ends of your bones at the joints breaks down. Once the cartilage begins to degrade, your bones rub against each other in the joint area. Stiffness, pain, and loss of movement in the joint are a few common symptoms that you may notice.
Your immune system typically protects you from infection. Rheumatoid arthritis (RA), though, is a chronic inflammatory disease that affects the joints. RA is caused by an attack on the body started by the immune system.
The body’s immune system attacks the synovium, which lines the joints. In addition to joint damage, you will likely notice:
- loss of function
RA typically affects the wrist and finger joints. In addition to making use of your hands difficult, it can cause deformities, if inflammation continues.
Many think that arthritis just affects older people, but that isn’t true. Juvenile arthritis is used to describe the disease when it occurs before the age of 16.
There are many different types of juvenile arthritis, and it causes pain and joint swelling in the hands and wrist. Injuries such as broken bones in the hands or ligament, or tendon damage in the hand or wrist can also cause arthritis. Though the injury heals, these areas may have become weakened and more susceptible to arthritis in the future.
Tips for preventing arthritis
There is no known cure for arthritis. In fact, most treatments for arthritis are aimed at early recognition and prevention. Genetics can increase your likelihood for developing arthritis, as can a strong family history of the disease. Women are also more prone to arthritis than men.
You may try to prevent arthritis and still develop the disease. However, you can take actions to reduce your risk:
- Maintain a healthy weight. This can help to fight off OA.
- Don’t smoke, or quit smoking. This may reduce your chance of developing RA.
- Try to avoid injury when playing sports or participating in recreational activities.
- If your job requires a lot of pushing, pulling, or lifting of heavy objects, take precautions to avoid injury to your joints.
- If your job calls for a lot of typing, practice good posture. If necessary, get a special keyboard, wrist cushion, or pad.
More tips for your hands
Moving your hands and fingers can help keep your ligaments and tendons flexible and increase the function of synovial fluid. Try regular hand exercises to strengthen muscles and relieve stiffness and pain. Simple exercises like flexing and bending, finger touching, and finger sliding may help keep your fingers limber.
Staying physically active while at the same time taking extra precautions against injury is vital not only for preventing arthritis, but also for your overall physical health.
Arthritis can be difficult to diagnose. Talk to your doctor if you begin to experience any of the symptoms.
Your doctor will look at your hands and joints, and check for tenderness. Your doctor will also look for any pain or swelling, or any other damage. They may send you to a rheumatologist, a doctor specializing in arthritis and other conditions of the muscles and joints.
This specialist will ask questions about your and your family’s medical history, your daily activities, and your job. They’ll also give you a physical exam. They may also recommend blood tests, X-rays, and other imaging tests, which can often help to determine the level of inflammation.
According to the Arthritis Foundation, many doctors feel that aggressive treatment is needed early on, or within the “window of opportunity.” This window of opportunity is two years after the initial onset of the disease, and many doctors aim for six months.
Arthritis is a debilitating disease, and early detection is key. Treatment varies with the type of arthritis. Certain medications help ease pain and inflammation. These include nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDs, such as ibuprofen (Advil) or indomethacin (Tivorbex). If you have RA, your doctor may prescribe medications that decrease inflammation by suppressing your immune response.
In extreme cases, surgery may be necessary to correct or alleviate certain problems, especially if arthritis is causing major limitations in your life.
Staying active, eating a healthy and balanced diet, and getting plenty of sleep are simple ways to manage your arthritis. Make sure to take breaks when doing strenuous or repetitive activities. Figure out the activities that cause your arthritis to flare up, and learn the best way to manage your pain.
If you do have pain in your hands, you might try using assistive devices, which are designed to take pressure off your joints. Examples include special jar openers and gripping devices.
When arthritis strikes, it doesn’t discriminate. The Arthritis Foundation estimates that by the year 2040, 78 million people will have arthritis. With such staggering figures, it’s important that you’re aware of the dangers of arthritis and, more importantly, the causes and symptoms. If you begin to experience any symptoms, see a doctor. When it comes to getting ahead of arthritis, early detection is the best detection.