Arthritis in the fingers can cause joint swelling, loss of function, and other symptoms. It may also change the appearance of the affected joints.
The joints in your fingers, including the knuckles, may be the most delicate in the body. They typically work together like a well-oiled machine, helping you perform your daily activities.
However, if you develop arthritis, you may experience changes to the form of your joints and decreased function in your fingers.
The most common types of arthritis that may affect the fingers include:
Read on to learn how arthritis in the fingers looks and feels.
In its earliest stages, arthritis causes a dull, achy sensation in the fingers. You might experience this pain after a day when you use your hands more than usual. Pain in the early stages of arthritis may come and go.
As arthritis worsens, more cartilage wears away. Without this protective barrier to cushion your delicate joints, you may have pain even when you don’t use your hands or when you use them very little. Pain might become so severe that it wakes you up from your sleep.
The tissue and cartilage in your hands and fingers typically protect your delicate joints. If a joint experiences damage or excessive stress, the tissues that line the joint may swell. This swelling may make your hands and fingers appear puffier than usual.
In some cases, the entire finger — and not just an individual joint — may swell. This is known as dactylitis. Dactylitis results from severe inflammation. PsA is the most common cause of dactylitis. However, it can sometimes affect people with other arthritis types.
Arthritis also causes joint stiffness. A joint can’t move as freely when the tissue and cartilage swell.
You may notice that it’s hard to make a fist or move your fingers. Sometimes a weakened grip can make it hard for you to hold on to objects like cups, and you may even drop things more easily.
Joint stiffness is especially common in the morning when you haven’t used the joint in several hours. It may also occur after a long day of movement when the joints experience more stress than usual.
The cartilage in your joints can wear away unevenly. Additionally, as arthritis progresses, the tissues and ligaments that usually hold the joints in place grow weaker. These two developments can cause the joints in your hands and fingers to change.
As arthritis worsens, the changes will be more obvious.
Arthritis in the hands will involve the distal interphalangeal (DIP), proximal interphalangeal (PIP), or metacarpophalangeal (MCP) joints. The DIP joints are at the fingertips. The PIP joints are the joints directly below them. The MCP joints are your knuckles, the larger joints below the PIP joints.
The distribution of your joint issues can often indicate your arthritis type. The DIP joints are involved only in OA or PsA. RA commonly involves the PIP and MCP joints but never the DIP joints.
When a joint experiences damage, tissues and ligaments around the joint can become inflamed. This inflammation will cause the joint to feel warm. The joints are often very painful when you put pressure on them or move them.
It may also cause redness or discoloration around the joint.
In a healthy joint, a layer of cartilage covers and cushions the bones. In an arthritic joint, the cartilage wears away and can even disappear altogether.
As the cartilage wears away, you may experience a grinding or grating sensation in your joints. Bone-on-bone contact causes the sensation.
This contact will be painful, and the loss of cartilage will appear on X-rays as a loss of joint space.
Bone spurs may also develop in arthritic joints. As the damage in a joint worsens, the body’s reaction may be to create extra bone.
These knobby growths can give your hands and fingers a gnarled appearance. The growths rarely cause pain, but they may eventually prevent a joint from functioning properly.
Bone spurs are usually typical in cases of OA.
Myxoid cysts are small fluid-filled sacs that may appear like small dents or ridges on your fingers. They’re also known as digital mucous cysts.
They usually measure 5 to 8 millimeters. Myxoid cysts are most likely to develop at the end of the finger and may occur under the fingernail. They may appear as a round “pearl” on top of the hand near the nail at the DIP joint.
Myxoid cysts are more common in people in their 60s. They affect females more often than males and are closely associated with OA.
Many adults live with the visible — or invisible — symptoms of arthritis each day.
If you recognize arthritis symptoms in your hands and fingers, make an appointment with a primary care physician or rheumatologist. They can teach you joint exercises and help you find treatments that can ease your pain and discomfort.
If you don’t already have a rheumatologist, the Healthline FindCare tool can help you locate a physician in your area.