Arthritis in Wrist

Overview

What is wrist arthritis?

Arthritis causes pain and inflammation in the wrist joint. Many small bones make up your wrist, which connects your hand and forearm. The wrist joint helps you bend, straighten and rotate your hand. Arthritis in your wrist causes painful swelling and inflammation in this joint.

How common is wrist arthritis?

You use your wrists throughout the day. This makes them more prone to arthritis and other problems. Approximately 1 in 7 Americans has arthritis in the wrist.

What are the types of wrist arthritis?

You can get joint inflammation in different areas of the wrist. Healthcare providers name types of wrist arthritis for where they occur, including:

  • Distal radioulnar: Arthritis occurs where the radius bone meets the ulna bone in the forearm.
  • Midcarpal: Arthritis develops in the eight small carpal bones in the wrist.
  • Radiocarpal: Arthritis develops where the two forearm bones (the radius and ulna) and carpal bones meet.

Symptoms and Causes

What causes arthritis in the wrist?

The wrist joint is part of the skeletal system. Several bones come together to form the wrist joint.

Cartilage (a connective tissue) at the ends of bones allows them to glide against each other. Age and some health conditions can wear away this cartilage. When this happens, bone rubs against bone, causing swelling, pain and stiffness. This is arthritis.

What are the types of wrist arthritis?

Different types of arthritis can affect the wrist, including:

  • Osteoarthritis: Osteoarthritis is a wearing down of cartilage. It often develops as you get older. It’s typically the result of years of wear on the wrist joint. Some people have a condition called Kienbock’s disease that cuts off blood supply to the carpal bones in the wrist. This destroys cartilage, leading to osteoarthritis.
  • Post-traumatic arthritis: This type of arthritis develops after an injury like a broken bone or a sprain (ligament injury). Arthritis may develop years after an injury, even if bones and ligaments heal correctly.
  • Rheumatoid arthritis: Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease. It often starts in small joints like the wrists. The condition typically affects both sides of your body (both wrists). In this form, the immune system attacks and damages healthy cells, including cartilage.
  • Psoriatic arthritis: Psoriasis, another autoimmune disease, causes scaly skin patches. Some people with psoriasis also get psoriatic arthritis in the wrist and other joints.
  • Gout: Gout occurs when your body has too much uric acid in the blood. Uric acid is a waste product that forms when you digest food. The excess acid causes tiny, painful crystals to form in joints. Gout often affects toes first, but it can affect wrists and other small joints.

What are the symptoms of wrist arthritis?

Symptoms vary depending on the cause. For some people, symptoms are severe and interfere with daily life. For others, symptoms are mild and may come and go.

Wrist pain is one of the first signs of arthritis in the wrist. The pain may worsen when you rotate your palm or try to open jars or turn doorknobs. You may also experience:

  • Reduced range of motion.
  • Red, warm or swollen joints.
  • Stiffness that’s worse in the morning and improves throughout the day.
  • Wrist and hand weakness.

Diagnosis and Tests

How is wrist arthritis diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will perform a physical exam to assess your range of motion and check for signs of inflammation. To diagnose arthritis type, you may have:

  • Blood tests to check for inflammation that can indicate rheumatoid arthritis or other problems.
  • X-rays to look for a breakdown of cartilage.

Management and Treatment

What are nonsurgical treatments for wrist arthritis?

Wrist arthritis treatments depend on the arthritis type. They include:

  • Alternating hot and cold compresses.
  • Braces or splints.
  • Disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs) to treat rheumatoid arthritis.
  • Hand exercises (approved by a physical therapist or other healthcare provider).
  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), including pain-relieving skin creams.
  • Rest (limit or stop activities that worsen wrist pain).
  • Steroid injections.

What are surgical treatments for wrist arthritis?

If severe symptoms interfere with your daily life, you may need surgery. Surgical options include:

  • Proximal row carpectomy to remove a few carpal bones in the wrist, giving bones more room to move without friction.
  • Denervation surgery to disconnect nerves in the wrist joint, relieving pain.
  • Fusion surgery to join one or more wrist bones to prevent rubbing and friction.
  • Joint replacement (wrist arthroplasty) to replace damaged bones with artificial implants.

Prevention

How can I prevent wrist arthritis?

There isn’t much you can do to prevent arthritis that affects your wrists. Once arthritis develops, you can take steps like wearing a splint to ease pressure on the wrist.

Outlook / Prognosis

What is the outlook for people with wrist arthritis?

Most people with wrist arthritis can manage the pain with NSAIDs, hand exercises and other at-home treatments. Steroid injections can also help.

If wrist pain becomes severe and affects your ability to enjoy life, your healthcare provider can discuss surgery options.

Living With

When should I call the doctor?

You should call your healthcare provider if you experience:

  • Inability to move your hand, wrist or fingers.
  • Pain or limited range of motion that interferes with daily life.
  • Unusual redness or swelling in the wrist joint.

What questions should I ask my doctor?

You may want to ask your healthcare provider:

  • What type of wrist arthritis do I have?
  • What treatments can help?
  • What are treatment side effects?
  • Can physical therapy or other exercises help?
  • Should I look out for signs of complications?

Resources

A note from Cleveland Clinic

Wrist arthritis is a top cause of wrist pain. Your healthcare provider can help pinpoint the type of arthritis, which can determine the best treatment approach. Most people feel better with nonsurgical care like wearing a splint, modifying activities and doing hand exercises. If wrist pain interferes with daily life, your provider might recommend surgery.

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 04/29/2021.

References

  • American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. Arthritis of the Wrist. https://orthoinfo.aaos.org/en/diseases--conditions/arthritis-of-the-wrist/ (https://orthoinfo.aaos.org/en/diseases--conditions/arthritis-of-the-wrist/) Accessed 2/17/2021.
  • American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. Wrist Joint Replacement (Wrist Arthroplasty). https://orthoinfo.aaos.org/en/treatment/wrist-joint-replacement-wrist-arthroplasty/ (https://orthoinfo.aaos.org/en/treatment/wrist-joint-replacement-wrist-arthroplasty/) Accessed 2/17/2021.
  • American Society for Surgery of the Hand. Three Causes of Wrist Arthritis. https://www.assh.org/handcare/blog/3-causes-of-wrist-arthritis (https://www.assh.org/handcare/blog/3-causes-of-wrist-arthritis) Accessed 2/17/2021.
  • American Society for Surgery of the Hand. Wrist Arthritis. https://www.assh.org/handcare/condition/wrist-arthritis (https://www.assh.org/handcare/condition/wrist-arthritis) Accessed 2/17/2021.
  • Arthritis Foundation. When Hand or Wrist Pain May Mean Arthritis. https://www.arthritis.org/health-wellness/about-arthritis/where-it-hurts/when-hand-or-wrist-pain-may-mean-arthritis (https://www.arthritis.org/health-wellness/about-arthritis/where-it-hurts/when-hand-or-wrist-pain-may-mean-arthritis) Accessed 2/17/2021.
  • Akhondi H, Panginikkod S. Wrist Arthritis. [Updated 2020 Jul 5]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2021 Jan-. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK531497/ (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK531497/) Accessed 2/17/2021.

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