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Osteoarthritis (OA) is a degenerative joint disease than can affect any joint in your body, including your hands. Hand arthritis is common in the:

  • wrist
  • 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 mild inflammation, stiffness, and pain.

There are several causes, treatments, risk factors, and symptoms of hand arthritis.

The symptoms of hand arthritis differ from person to person. A lot depends on the specific joints affected or the common activities that the person does.

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
  • a weak grip
  • swelling and tenderness in the knuckles or around the wrist

Heberden’s nodes

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. Also, the capsule around the joint can thicken and enlarge.

In hand arthritis, the enlarged capsule and bone growths are called Heberden’s nodes when they occur on the joints near the fingertips. They consist of round, hard, swollen areas that develop around the joint.

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 swellings called Bouchard’s nodes.

The exact cause of hand arthritis is unknown. The condition usually develops due to wear and tear of the joint, which occurs gradually over time.

There’s also a genetic component to hand OA. Family members may develop OA at a younger age than the general population, and may have more severe disease.

A healthy joint has cartilage at the end of the bone that cushions and allows smooth movement. In OA, cartilage deteriorates, exposing the underlying bone, which triggers joint pain and stiffness.

Your risk for OA increases if you:

  • have a family member who also has degenerative joint pain of the hands
  • are older
  • have a job that requires a lot of hand work such as manufacturing
  • have had 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 an evaluation and tests. Your doctor will check the joints in your hand for signs of OA.

Signs include:

  • hand joint tenderness
  • swelling
  • deformity
  • limited range of motion

In some cases, your doctor will also order an X-ray to look for cartilage loss and other signs of damage. This can indicate arthritis of the hand and that they should look for potential bone spurs and erosions.

Rarely, your doctor might order an MRI to look more closely at your bones and soft tissue.

Symptoms of hand OA can be similar to other joint conditions. Your doctor may also order blood tests, especially to exclude other types of arthritis like rheumatoid arthritis.

Some doctors even complete a joint fluid analysis to check for signs of inflammation in the wrist joints. These tests can help your doctor determine if your hand arthritis may be related to crystal deposition diseases, like gout or pseudogout.

Pain medication

Pain medication can provide some relief during flare ups.

For many, over-the-counter (OTC) nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen and naproxen are effective. Those with severe OA may need a stronger prescription.

NSAIDs are also available in topical form. The FDA has approved diclofenac (Voltaren) gel as a treatment for osteoarthritis.

Your doctor may also prescribe injections if oral drugs aren’t doing the trick. An injection of anti-inflammatory medicines, usually a steroid, and anesthetics can calm the inflamed joints quickly and last for several months.

Exercises

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.

Lifestyle adjustments

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
  • soaking hands in warm water
  • gently squeezing a sponge or rubber ball

Some people have found OA relief in the hands with anti-arthritis gloves. These gloves are designed to reduce pain and swelling and may gradually improve mobility in your hands.

There are also ring splints that can be made to support individual joints and are made to look like jewelry.

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Diet

The Arthritis Foundation recommends an all-around healthy diet. This includes an abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lean meats, as well as minimizing your sugar intake.

Foods to look for include:

  • red or purple grapes
  • red onion
  • red apples
  • berries
  • broccoli
  • leafy greens
  • cherries
  • plums
  • 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

Surgery is another option if your OA doesn’t respond to diet, medications, and lifestyle changes, and is interfering with daily activities.

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, but 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’s 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, managing 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 5 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 hand arthritis, 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.