What Rheumatoid Arthritis Does to the Hands and Wrists

By

Paige Greenfield

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Wrist Exam

Your hands and wrists are made up of many small joints. These joints work together to allow you to do everything from typing on a keyboard, to tying a shoe, to writing with a pen.

If you have rheumatoid arthritis (RA), inflammation can cause pain, swelling, stiffness, and lack of function in your joints. RA most often starts in the small joints.

Here are some ways RA may affect your hands and wrists. Note that since the disease tends to affect both sides of the body, if you have symptoms in one hand, they’re likely to occur in the other hand, too.

What RA Does to the Fingers

In addition to causing pain and swelling, RA can lead to other serious issues in your fingers. For example, arthritis at the base of your thumb may cause you to lose the ability to move it as much as before. Other nearby joints may become more mobile to make up for the affected joint.

You may feel a grating or grinding sensation in your finger joints. This occurs when damaged cartilage surfaces rub against one another.

Changes in bone, loss of cartilage, and swollen joints due to RA may also make certain joints appear much larger than normal. When arthritis affects the joints located at the end of your fingers, it may cause small cysts to form. These cysts may cause changes, such as ridging or dents, in the fingernail.

What RA Does to the Wrists

RA often affects the two bones that make up your forearm, the radius and ulna. If the disease softens and wears away the ulna, it may tear the tendons that keep your fingers straight. This can lead to deformity in your joints such as bent wrists or fingers.

Pain and swelling in your wrists can also lead to carpal tunnel syndrome. This condition occurs when a nerve in the wrist is compressed, which slows or blocks nerve signals traveling to the compressed nerve. This can cause numbness, weakness in the hand, or tingling or burning sensations that can extend up to the forearm.

If you notice any changes in your hands, fingers or wrists, talk with your doctor. Medications and surgical treatments are available that can help address these issues.

Key Takeaways

  • Inflammation from RA can cause pain, swelling, stiffness, and lack of function in small joints such as hands and wrists.

  • You may feel a grating or grinding sensation in your finger joints.

  • Changes in bone, loss of cartilage, and swollen joints may also make certain joints appear much larger than normal.

  • Pain and swelling in your wrists can lead to carpal tunnel syndrome.

  • Talk with your doctor about available medications and surgical treatments.

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Medical Reviewers: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS Last Review Date: May 1, 2016

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View Sources

Medical References

  1. Arthritis of the Wrist. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. http://orthoinfo.aaos.org/topic.cfm?topic=a00218
  2. Arthritis of the Hand. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. http://orthoinfo.aaos.org/topic.cfm?topic=A00224
  3. Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. American College of Rheumatology. http://www.rheumatology.org/Practice/Clinical/Patients/Diseases_And_Conditions/Carpal_Tunnel_Syndrom...

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