Arthritis in Hands and Fingers

Our hands are capable of many functions, providing precision for delicate tasks as well as enabling us to complete heavier, physically demanding jobs.

If you’re living with arthritis in your hands, fingers, or thumbs, protecting your joints is so important. The 29 joints in our hands are common areas for arthritis, and when these joints become arthritic they can make every day activities very difficult and even painful.

SYMPTOMS OF ARTHRITIS IN HANDS AND FINGERS

While not everyone with arthritis in the joints in hands will experience all of these symptoms and some people may not even have any symptoms at all, below are some common symptoms for hand arthritis:

  • Joint pain.  This is initially experienced as a dull, burning sensation after a particularly busy day. As arthritis advances, the pain becomes sharper and more constant, even occurring at rest.
  • Joint stiffness. This is common in the morning but also occurs after a long day of work or activity involving the hands
  • Crepitus. This is a grinding, grating feeling or a crunchy sound in the hands or wrists on movement.
  • Weakness. It can begin to get difficult to grasp an object or maintain a strong grip or pinch.
  • Warmth or redness. It is common to feel warmth or redness where the joint, ligaments or tissues have become inflamed.
  • Swelling. Swollen joints in fingers, hands and thumbs are very common and can lead to a puffier appearance.
  • Loss of movement.  Particularly as arthritis progresses, you may notice loss of movement in the affected joints.
  • Joint shape. You may notice changes in joint shape, or a slight turn in the direction of a finger or thumb. This is usually caused by uneven wearing of cartilage or weakness surrounding tissues or ligaments.
  • Knobbly or crooked fingers. Bone spurs can give a knobbly or crooked appearance to fingers and thumbs, and in some cases can also reduce the function of fingers or thumbs.


Osteoarthritis in Fingers and Joints in hands

Osteoarthritis is an arthritic condition that affects the whole joint including bone, cartilage, ligaments and muscles. While this form of arthritis can affect other areas of the body, fingers and hands are very common. In osteoarthritis, the joint at the base of the thumb is often affected and can result in difficulty gripping or pinching objects. Other finger joints can also be affected and bumps called Herbeden’s nodes and Bouchard’s nodes may appear in the joint at the end of the finger, closest to the nail or the middle joints.

Gout in hands

Gout is associated with high levels of uric acid in the blood, causing crystals to form in the joints. The affected joint becomes red, swollen and is intensely painful to touch. It usually comes on very quickly, often overnight, normally affecting one joint at a time.

Psoriatic arthritis in hands and thumbs

Psoriatic arthritis (PsA) causes a unique type of swelling with fingers taking on a characteristic ‘sausage like’ appearance. The bones themselves can also become inflamed and painful. Pitting of the nails may also be present.

Rheumatoid arthritis and hands

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) often starts in smaller joints such as in the hand or wrist. One of the early signs of RA in the hands is an inability to form a complete fist.

It usually occurs in a symmetrical pattern, affecting both hands including the knuckle joints, middle finger joints and wrists. People with long-standing RA or those diagnosed later in life may notice a deviation of their fingers to the side, away from the thumb.

Surrounding tendons can also become inflamed, affecting the ability to straighten fingers. People with RA are also more susceptible to developing carpal tunnel syndrome, a condition caused by pressure on nerves that run through the wrist, with symptoms of numbness, pins and needles, and pain.
 

Managing Hand Arthritis

To help manage hand arthritis, your healthcare team might suggest some of the following treatments and therapies: 

  • Oral medications (taken by mouth) to reduce pain and swelling.
  • Steroid injections into a single joint to relieve symptoms
  • Disease-modifying medications for treatment of inflammatory forms of arthritis
  • Hand exercises to increase flexibility and strength
  • Creams or gels (ask your doctor or pharmacist for advice)
  • Hot or cold therapies e.g running hands under warm water or applying a heat pack to relieve pain and stiffness, or applying ice or a cold pack to reduce swelling
  • Splinting to rest a painful joint or ease stress on joints during certain activities
  • Surgery, in some instances where conservative approaches to treatment are no longer effective, when hand-function is compromised, or to prevent tendon damage.
  • Joint protection strategies such as resting painful joints, pacing activities, simplifying tasks and using assistive tools and equipment, are especially important in the management of hand and wrist arthritis.


Talk to your doctor, specialist or treating allied health professional about the various medications, exercises and other treatment options for hand arthritis.

The first signs of arthritis in your hands will usually become present through symptoms like swelling, joint pain, stiffness, and loss of movement. While there are other symptoms that can also be a sign of arthritis in the hands, fingers or thumbs, not everyone will experience all of them. If you are suffering with any of these symptoms, it is recommended you talk to your GP.
After noticing symptoms and talking to your doctor, they will be able to help you reach a diagnosis if you are suffering from arthritis in the hands.
Once you have reached a diagnosis, you can begin treatment and exercises that will help manage your arthritic symptoms. For arthritis in fingers and thumbs, exercises that stretch and strengthen muscles can help limit pain and increase range of motion. Squeezing a small stress ball can sometimes help, while stretching and even hand massages can help ease pain 15 and discomfort. For tailored exercises for your hand arthritis, consider joining our Arthritis Moves exercise program


Talk to your doctor, specialist or allied health professional about the various medications, exercises and other treatment options for hand arthritis.

For more tips on managing your arthritis, read our Hands and arthritis information sheet, or access our free information sheets on a range of topics including areas of the body, types of arthritis and the ways it can be managed. 


More information and support

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Download our free information sheet Hands and Arthritis

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Browse more of our Arthritis Insights articles for more information on pain and arthritis of the hands. 

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For help with finding a health professional, use the links on our 'Find a Specialist' page. 

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Have questions? Call our free infoline on 1800 011 041 to speak with a member of our health team. 


Sources:
Arthritis & Osteoporosis WA Arthritis & Osteoporosis NSW, Arthritis Matters Winter 2016
Arthritis Australia. At home with arthritis: Simple steps for managing in the home. Sydney: Arthritis Australia, 2010.
Arthritis Australia. Hands and arthritis [fact sheet]. Sydney: Arthritis Australia, 2007, reviewed 2013.

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