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Understanding Arthritis in the Wrist

by Jaydee Vykoukal, PT, DPT February 13, 2019 0 Comments

wrist pain

Arthritis in the wrist is common in people with rheumatoid arthritis, but osteoarthritis and posttraumatic arthritis can also cause wrist joint pain and inflammation. Although symptoms vary, most of them develop over time and can cause permanent joint damage. While there is no cure for hand arthritis, several treatments are available that relieve the symptoms and can prevent them from progressing. Keep reading to get more information on arthritis and how to manage the pain.

Understanding Wrist Arthritis

Arthritis affects wrist bones secondary to damaged joint cartilage, a slippery substance that cushions and coats the bones. Without a smooth joint surface, your bones will rub together, causing friction, loss of cartilage, and eventually joint damage.

Types of Wrist Arthritis

Although there are a variety of different arthritis types, osteoarthritis, rheumatoid, and posttraumatic arthritis are the most common types of hand arthritis.

  • Osteoarthritis

    Wrist Osteoarthritis (OA) develops when bone cartilage wears down (referred to as wear and tear), and it mostly affects seniors but can develop in younger adults too with overuse. Bone friction is the primary cause of osteoarthritis with daily movements. Risk increases with poor mechanics or limited blood flow to the wrist, such as with Kienbock’s disease of the carpal bones.

    Joint pain is the most common indicator of wrist osteoarthritis. Other signs include morning stiffness and joint locking. Swelling is less common than with other types of arthritis.

  • Rheumatoid Arthritis

    Rheumatoid wrist arthritis is a chronic inflammatory disease that can affect joints throughout the body, but most often hands and wrists. Rheumatoid Arthritis, also known as inflammatory arthritis, is usually symmetrical-- often developing in the same joint on both sides of the body (differentiating it from asymmetrical OA).

    In the early stages of rheumatoid wrist arthritis, there will be joint stiffness and tenderness that fades away with movement. But as the inflammation progresses, you will experience warmth and redness around the wrist, decrease in range of motion, and long-term swelling.

    RA starts in the joints, but eventually causes widespread inflammation. Because it is an autoimmune disease, it requires close monitoring and joint protection during flare ups to prevent unnecessary damage.

  • Posttraumatic Arthritis

    PA develops after an injury like a broken wrist or torn ligaments. Any form of wrist injury can damage the cartilage and cause inflammation.

Stages of Wrist Arthritis

Hand arthritis symptoms can develop suddenly or slowly depending on the type of arthritis.

  • Mild

    Mild arthritis is characterized by pain or irritation, and wrist stiffness in the morning. You can take supplements and engage in hand exercises to relieve the symptoms.

  • Moderate

    In this stage, hand and wrist movement will be slightly restricted. You may feel a low level of throbbing, frequent flare-ups, and the effects of inflammation will become apparent.

  • Severe

    Severe wrist arthritis is characterized by excruciating pain after every activity and decreased hand motion. At this stage, physical deformity will be more noticeable. Anxiety and depression may also develop due to the pain, loss of hand function, and an overall decrease in quality of life.

    You can manage the pain using anti-inflammatory pain medication and NSAIDs, such as ibuprofen. Sometimes a cortisone shot may be recommended too as needed. Conservatively, you can also participate in hand therapy, pain relieving modalities, and make appropriate healthy lifestyle changes.

How to Treat Wrist Arthritis

What are the Causes of Wrist Arthritis?

Wrist arthritis is a group of deformities that result in joint damage and is caused by degeneration of cartilage, joint inflammation, and prior wrist injury.

Risk Factors

Osteoarthritis and RA are common and can affect people of all ages. But some people like seniors are more predisposed than others, due to several risk factors that include:

  • Joint misalignment
  • Repetitive hand movement
  • Hand trauma or injury that separates bone from the joint
  • Age
  • Women are more predisposed to RA due to hormonal changes
  • Family history

Arthritis in Wrists Symptoms

Symptoms of arthritis differ from individual to individual based on the exposed risk factors. In the early stages, arthritis signs will often mimic carpal tunnel syndrome symptoms, and they may include:

  • Swelling
  • Hand pain
  • Stiffness
  • Joint weakness
  • Numbness

Symptoms may occur regularly or intermittently--most times you will get flare-ups (particularly with RA), but with proper treatment, you can go into remission and keep your symptoms manageable. Arthritic remission is where you experience partial or no symptoms at all. Remission can last for years, but a change in your treatment plan can trigger a relapse.

Feeling these symptoms in your hand as well? 

How is Wrist Arthritis Diagnosed

Your rheumatologist or doctor will perform a comprehensive medical history, physical examination, X-ray, urine and blood tests to identify the type of arthritis you might have. This will also help your doctor rule out other wrist related issues such as fracture, necrosis, radiculopathy, and carpal tunnel syndrome.


Severe wrist arthritis can cause other complications if not addressed early:

  • Osteonecrosis (death of local bone tissue)
  • A complete breakdown of cartilage
  • Loss of hand movement for daily activities

Furthermore, Rheumatoid arthritis that isn’t well managed with appropriate anti-rheumatic drugs can lead to

  • Widespread inflammation
  • Eye complications
  • Pleurisy, inflammation of tissues between the lungs and ribcage
  • Vasculitis, thickening of the blood vessels
  • Joint damage and deformity of the affected joint(s)
  • Cardiovascular disease

Living with Arthritis Wrist Pain

With a few lifestyle adjustments, you can manage the symptoms, relieve pain, and delay the progression of arthritis of the hand and wrist with nonsurgical treatment options. Only extremely severe cases would warrant a possible joint replacement. Consider changing or eliminating certain strenuous activities that aggravate the symptoms. Additionally, invest in assistive devices including aids to reduce the pain and pressure off your joints- such as a wrist splint with sleep, ergonomic writing and eating utensils, proper office setup, and more. Don’t forget to change your diet and incorporate alternative therapies like a massage and physical therapy to alleviate inflammation.


Shop Wrist Arthritis


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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