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Hand Arthritis Overview

by Jaydee Vykoukal, PT, DPT March 20, 2020 0 Comments

Hand Arthritis

Commonly affecting older adults, arthritis in the hands can be painful, debilitating, and can affect your ability to carry out everyday tasks. Although there is no cure for arthritis, many treatments help manage symptoms, while dexterity aids help people improve their quality of life. In this post, we tell you everything you need to know about living with hand arthritis.

What is Hand Arthritis?

Hand arthritis is inflammation of one or more of the joints in the hand. The hand, fingers, and wrist consist of several joints. Each finger, including the thumb, contains three joints. When components in these joints become damaged, it leads to arthritis in the hands and fingers. The condition causes pain, stiffness, and difficulty using the hands.

The two most common types of arthritis in the hands are osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. Learn more about each of them below.

Osteoarthritis in the Hands

When the cartilage wears away or becomes damaged, it causes hand osteoarthritis. When the damage is severe, the unprotected bones can rub against one another, causing pain, stiffness, and loss of mobility. Damaged cartilage can also affect the mechanics of using your hands, thus making use of them feel uncoordinated or even clumsy.

Osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis. It most commonly occurs as a result of the natural wear and tear on the joints. As a result, many older adults develop osteoarthritis.

Rheumatoid Arthritis in the Hands

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) affects the thin membrane called synovium that lines and lubricates the joints. This autoimmune condition occurs when the immune system mistakenly attacks the synovium. Over time, the inflammation can thicken the synovium and destroy the surrounding cartilage and bone.

Rheumatoid arthritis most commonly affects the wrist and finger joints. It causes pain, swelling, and loss of movement. Untreated, the inflammation can lead to deformities.

What Causes Arthritis in the Hands?

The cause of arthritis in the hands depends on the type of arthritis you have. Osteoarthritis results from wear and tear to the cartilage. This damage may happen over several years, or it can occur more rapidly due to injury or infection.

Rheumatoid arthritis develops from a faulty immune response. The exact cause of this autoimmune joint disease is unknown, although there is likely a genetic component at play. Environmental factors such as a viral or bacterial infection may trigger disease onset.

Risk Factors

Risk factors for arthritis can be genetic or environmental. Some of the most common include:


Arthritis can run in families. In addition, having certain genes increases the risk of environmental factors triggering arthritis onset.


The risk of both osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis is greatest in older adults. This is mainly due to the natural deterioration of the joints over time.


Women are more likely than men to develop both osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.

History of Injury

If you have injured a joint in your hands, then you are at a higher risk of arthritis in that joint.

Certain Occupations or Hobbies

People who regularly engage in tasks that place repetitive stress on their hands may eventually develop osteoarthritis in one or more of the joints.

Bone Deformities

Those born with cartilage problems or malformed joints are more likely to get osteoarthritis.


Smoking increases the risk of rheumatoid arthritis. Smokers also tend to get more severe forms of the disease than non-smokers.

Exposure to Chemicals

Some experts believe that exposure to asbestos, silica, or other chemicals can increase the risk of rheumatoid arthritis. It is not understood why this occurs.


Being overweight increases the risk of rheumatoid arthritis in the hands, especially in women diagnosed before age 55. Also, fat tissue produces proteins that increase inflammation in the body.

Symptoms of Arthritis in the Hands

The symptoms and signs of arthritis in the hands vary slightly, depending on the type you have. Typically, though, arthritis causes:

  • Pain
  • Redness and heat (RA only)
  • Reduced range of motion in the joints
  • Stiffness
  • Swelling (RA only)

Symptoms may occur regularly or intermittently. Osteoarthritis is typically worse in the morning and gets better with movement. Plus, which joints or hand it affects more can vary greatly. Whereas rheumatoid arthritis is associated with heat and swelling that affects both hands simultaneously. Periods, where symptoms get worse, are called flare-ups. During periods of remission, symptoms may get much better or disappear completely.

Diagnosing Arthritis in the Hands

To diagnose arthritis, your doctor may perform:

  • A physical examination to check for pain, redness, warmth, and swelling in the joints of the hands, fingers, and wrist
  • Urine tests
  • Blood tests
  • Analysis of the fluid in the joints
  • Only if absolutely necessary, imaging tests such as X-rays, ultrasounds, and MRI scans can be done to diagnose specific problems in the joints and surrounding tissues


There is no cure for arthritis in the hands, but people may manage their symptoms to maintain their quality of life and prevent complications. Early detection is key, because most treatments work best when the disease is diagnosed at an early stage.

Severe or untreated arthritis may cause complications such as:

  • Difficulty carrying out daily tasks
  • Twisted and deformed joints

In addition, rheumatoid arthritis can increase your risk of developing the following:

  • A higher-than-normal level of body fat
  • Infections, due to reduced immune function
  • Carpal tunnel syndrome in the wrists
  • Heart problems such as blocked arteries
  • Lung disease
  • Lymphoma, a group of blood cancers
  • Osteoporosis
  • Sjogren's syndrome, a condition that causes dry eyes and mouth

Preventing Arthritis in the Hands

There is no sure-fire way to prevent arthritis pain in the hands, but the following may reduce your risk:

  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Exercise regularly
  • Quit smoking
  • Support your hand joints to prevent injury when playing sports or engaging in other strenuous or repetitive tasks
  • Use a special keyboard and wrist cushion when typing
  • Perform hand stretches and exercises on a regular basis to keep the tissues flexible and the synovial fluid flowing
  • Try glucosamine supplements, which may support joint health
  • Eat an anti-inflammatory diet or Mediterranean diet to reduce inflammation in the body

Learn More Ways to Prevent Hand Arthritis Here.

Living with Hand Arthritis

Although there is no cure, many treatments are available for arthritis. Most people can enjoy a good quality of life once they learn how to best manage their symptoms. Some of the most effective ways to do this include using arthritis aids for the hands, performing regular exercises, and taking medications.

If you are experiencing any of the symptoms of arthritis in your hands or other joints, see your doctor without delay. Early intervention is key to managing symptoms and slowing down disease progression.



Jaydee Vykoukal, PT, DPT
Jaydee Vykoukal, PT, DPT

JayDee Vykoukal is a Doctor of Physical Therapy, owner of the healthy habit platform Health Means Wealth, and freelance medical writer. She loves traveling and spending time with her family in nature. Her passion is helping others continue to participate in the activities they love through education and proper exercise.

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