We’re a very tactile species, and we rely heavily on our hands and the wide range of motion our flexible wrists afford to do a lot of things every day. What’s more, our opposable thumbs are unique in the animal kingdom and have been credited — along with big brains — with much of the forward evolution of human society. But because we do so much with our hands day in and day out, it’s not uncommon for the hands and wrists to sometimes become painful or stiff and less nimble than they’re designed to be.
“Pain in the hand or wrist can be caused by a multitude of reasons,” says Dr. Kanu Goyal, orthopedic hand surgeon at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus. A sudden injury or trauma is an obvious cause, and if that’s what’s led to your hand or wrist pain, you “should consider urgent evaluation to make sure a serious injury has not occurred,” he says.
However, hand and wrist pain can start without an obvious cause, or the triggering injury might be cumulative and not noticeable in the earlier stages, only becoming obvious over time.
Causes of Wrist or Hand Pain
Pain in the hands and/or wrists may be related to several diseases or conditions in the joints, tendons or nerves. Common causes include:
— Arthritis. Osteoarthritis is the most common cause of pain in the joints of the hands and in the wrist. This degenerative condition develops as we age because over time, the cartilage that cushions each joint breaks down, eventually allowing the bones of the joints to rub closer together and cause inflammation, swelling, pain and stiffness. “In the hand and wrist, the most common location of osteoarthritis is in the base of the thumb,” Goyal says.
— Carpal tunnel syndrome. Hand and wrist pain are hallmark signs of carpal tunnel syndrome, a condition in which the median nerve that runs from the elbow into the wrist and branches into the hand gets compressed or pinched. This common condition affects about 1 in 20 American adults and causes tingling, numbness and pain in the wrists and hands that can reduce your dexterity. It’s associated with certain occupations that involve repetitive motion or vibration, such as manufacturing and construction jobs.
— Neuropathy. Neuropathy causes numbness, tingling and sometimes painful sensations in the fingers, particularly in the tips of fingers. It can be the result of an injury to the nerves, such as may occur after exposure to extreme cold, but it can also be a side effect of certain medications such as chemotherapy treatment for cancer. Neuropathy can also result from nerve compression, such as occurs with carpal tunnel syndrome. Neuropathy is also common in people with diabetes, though this tends to develop more often in the toes and feet than in the hands.
— Tendinitis. “Tendons in the hand are unique as they are long, thin and have to pass through fibrous tunnels. Sometimes the tunnel the tendon goes through becomes thick, making it difficult for the tendons to glide. When this happens, it can cause pain and sometimes even clicking or popping,” Goyal says. That thickening of the tendon may be related to an anti-inflammatory condition such as an autoimmune disorder or an injury.
— Fractures. You’ll usually know if you’ve broken a bone in your hand or wrist because it will occur during a fall or other traumatic episode. You may hear a snap or see immediate bruising and swelling after falling or being in a car accident. But stress fractures can occur a bones of the hand or wrist that may be less obvious and related to repetitive stress or osteoporosis, a condition in which the bones become weaker and more likely to fracture.
— Trigger finger. Also called stenosing tenosynovitis, this condition causes a finger, multiple fingers or the thumb to get stuck in a bent position. It can be painful to try to straighten the digit. It’s caused by inflammation in the tendon that controls the movement of the digits and is often associated with rheumatoid arthritis, gout and diabetes.
[Read: Exercises for Osteoarthritis.]
Strategies for Coping with Pain in the Hands and Wrists
— Taking anti-inflammatory medications.
— Wearing braces.
— Physical therapy.
— Practicing mindfulness and meditation.
— At-home remedies.
Goyal says you can approach dealing with pain in the hands and wrists much like you would pain in other parts of the body. “I believe knowing the source of the pain can be helpful as it empowers you and allows you to take a targeted approach to prevent it from getting worse and treating it to make it better.”
Once you’ve been checked out by a health care professional to determine the cause of the problem, you may want to try the following tips for reducing pain and trying to keep your hand or wrist pain-free in the future:
— Taking anti-inflammatory medications. Your doctor may prescribe an anti-inflammatory medication such as a steroid pill or injection that will reduce inflammation and swelling and also pain relief. For some people, taking over the counter non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications is enough to alleviate the pain associated with arthritis or tendon injuries.
— Wearing braces. For certain hand and wrist problems, wearing a stabilizing brace can make a world of difference in the pain you feel. For example, with carpal tunnel syndrome, some people need to wear braces that hold the wrist in a flat rather than flexed position, particularly at night while sleeping. This relieves some of the pressure on the nerve and can greatly reduce pain, numbness and stiffness in the wrist and fingers.
— Physical therapy. Depending on what’s causing your wrist or hand pain, stretching and strengthening exercises might help alleviate it and even prevent future episodes. This approach is often an option after having had a traumatic injury, such as a broken bone or tendonitis, and it may a good option for some people with joint pain from arthritis. “Physical therapy has been shown to improve joint pain and physical function,” says Dr. Taylor R. Dunphy, an orthopedic surgeon with Hoag Orthopedic Institute in Orange County, California. “The American Academy of Orthopedic surgery strongly recommends physical therapy, with 29 studies showing that strength training can significantly decrease pain.” Your doctor or a physical therapist can assist you in finding the right stretches or exercises for your specific need.
— Practicing mindfulness and meditation. Increasingly, research is showing that practicing mindfulness and meditation may help you cope with pain and tolerate conditions that cause chronic pain a little better. Though it’s not entirely clear exactly how it works, it seems that meditation may relieve the sensation of pain “through stress reduction,” says Jose Moreno, a psychologist in the department of psychiatry and behavioral health, at the Wexner Medical Center. “When individuals are stressed, the body triggers the release of stress hormones, which impact inflammation and increase pain.” Reducing that stress may lead to feeling less pain or less intense pain overall, he says. Meditation is also helpful in dealing with other chronic health conditions, including easing anxiety and lowering blood pressure.
— Acupuncture. A form of traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture has been used for thousands of years to treat a variety of conditions and ailments. These days, acupuncture is often used to treat the chronic pain of arthritis. It’s not curative, but many patients find that the practice helps them feel less pain.
— CBD. Lotions and tinctures that contain CBD, also called cannabidiol, are gaining popularity as a means of controlling pain as may be associated with arthritis and other chronic conditions. Though the research on how CBD might alleviate pain is still thin and these products are not regulated by the FDA, for some people they’ve been life changing.
— At-home remedies. For less severe or debilitating injuries, often some good, old-fashioned rest, ice and elevation will be enough to alleviate pain the hands or wrists. Using a brace to support the sore finger, thumb or wrist can ensure it’s in the right ergonomic position and may also be a big help in alleviating pain. Taking over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medication is also often a big help in alleviating wrist and hand pain.
[Read: Foods for Joint Pain.]
When Should I Seek Medical Attention?
Goyal recommends speaking with your health care provider about pain in the hand or wrist if it’s intense, has been going on for a long time or is causing disruption to your daily life. “If an injury occurs that results in a deformity or a disability, such as an inability to move the fingers, urgent evaluation is recommended.”
In addition, “if the pain persists beyond a week or two and/or is causing you emotional distress,” or is interfering with your daily activities, it’s probably time to visit the doctor, he says.
In cases where you don’t know the cause of the hand or wrist pain, you should seek medical attention if you’re also feeling constant numbness, “as that may be a sign of ongoing nerve damage,” Goyal says.
Figuring out exactly what’s causing the pain is a key part of alleviation it and preventing it in the future, Goyal says. “Sometimes the pain is temporary and will get better on its own with time. Other times, it will be constant and severe and may require targeted treatment for it to improve. Visiting a physician and arriving at a diagnosis is almost always helpful in alleviating the pain.”
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