When it comes to daily life, we use our hands, wrists, and elbows for nearly every task — menial or large.
With age, overuse, trauma, or even infection, one or more of the joints in your hands, wrists, and elbows can experience the gradual degeneration of arthritis, which causes inflammation that can interfere with everyday activities.
What is arthritis?
Arthritis is a blanket term that characterizes stiffness, pain, tenderness, weakness, and a loss of range of motion in the joints. When it impacts your hand, wrist, and elbow, arthritis can be debilitating, specifically because most tasks involve extensive use of our upper extremities.
Typically, healthy joint movements allow bones to glide easily over one another while being fully protected by cartilage. As arthritic degeneration progresses, this cartilage gradually wears down, causing your bones to rub against each other, leading to irreparable damage.
According to Dr. Daniel Penello, an upper extremity specialist at Alexander Orthopaedics, arthritis of the hand, wrist and elbow “affects every part of patients’ lives. They have difficulty getting dressed, cutting food, and even performing their hobbies.”
What types of arthritis affect your hand, wrist, and elbow?
While the most common types of arthritis that affect the hands, wrists, and elbows are osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis, post-traumatic arthritis also wears down cartilage over time.
The most common form of arthritis, osteoarthritis is also referred to as “wear-and-tear” arthritis, and typically worsens with age — especially if you have a family history of osteoarthritis. While it usually impacts middle-aged patients, osteoarthritis can occur in younger patients as well.
As the lubricated cartilage that protects the joints wears down over time, the surface loses blood supply and takes longer to heal, eventually causing long-term damage.
A chronic disease and autoimmune disorder that affects multiple joints in the body, rheumatoid arthritis typically starts in smaller joints, like the hand and wrist. It decreases the body’s ability to defend against infection, damaging tissue like cartilage and ligaments that protect the joints in the hand, wrist and elbow.
Most commonly, rheumatoid arthritis affects the joint between the radius and ulna, the two bones of the forearm. The wearing down of the ulna can lead to ruptures in the tendons that straighten your fingers, causing loss of hand function and even deformities.
A form of degeneration that stems from injury to the hand, wrist, or elbow — such as a broken finger, fractured wrist, or torn ligament in the elbow — posttraumatic arthritis gradually worsens over time.
Regardless of the post-injury medical treatment received, a joint that’s undergone trauma is highly susceptible to developing arthritis as time progresses.
What are symptoms of hand, wrist and elbow arthritis?
Hand Arthritis Symptoms
Early symptoms of hand arthritis include:
- Dull or burning-like joint pain
- Swelling and tenderness
- Inflammatory-induced warmth
- Loss of range of motion in the hand joints
- Increased, unusual flexibility of surrounding joints
- Development of cysts on and around the fingers
Wrist Arthritis Symptoms
Arthritis of the wrist typically causes the following symptoms:
- Pain and stiffness
- Swelling of the wrist or below the thumb
- Weakness, inability to grip
- Loss of range of motion
Elbow Arthritis Symptoms
Arthritis of the elbow is typically characterized by:
- Pain and stiffness
- Limited mobility
- Swelling of the elbow
- Numbness or tingling in the ring and little fingers
Rheumatoid Arthritis Symptoms
Because of the unique nature of rheumatoid arthritis, its symptoms vary completely from osteoarthritis and posttraumatic arthritis. They include:
- Weakness of grip
- Difficulty moving the hand, wrist, or elbow
- Dull or burning pain in the knuckles
- Decreased appetite and weight loss
How is hand, wrist, and elbow arthritis diagnosed?
Your doctor or orthopedic specialist will review your medical history and discuss your symptoms, then conduct a physical examination of your hand, wrist, or elbow.
They will check for limitations in your range of motion, pinpoint areas of pain, weakness, tenderness, or joint instability, and identify swelling or abnormalities in appearance. To determine whether it is arthritis, carpal tunnel syndrome, cubital tunnel syndrome, or another form of nerve damage, your doctor may also conduct a nerve compression test.
To confirm their diagnosis of arthritis, your doctor or orthopedic specialist may use imaging tests, such as the following:
- X-ray: Because they can provide a detailed view of bone structures, X-rays are ideal for pinpointing the exact location of arthritis, and help your doctor or orthopedic specialist determine the type of arthritis affecting your joints.
- Blood tests: These could help determine the type of arthritis — specifically rheumatoid arthritis — affecting your hand, wrist, and elbow, or could possibly rule out the diagnosis altogether.
Can arthritis heal on its own?
Arthritis is a condition that can worsen over time if left poorly managed or untreated.
We recommend scheduling an appointment with your orthopedic specialist to review your symptoms, diagnose your condition, and help guide you toward the treatment plan that meets your individual needs.
How do you treat hand, wrist, and elbow arthritis?
In many cases, hand, wrist, and elbow arthritis can be treated and managed without surgery. Before recommending you undergo a surgically invasive procedure, doctors will begin treatment with nonsurgical options, including:
Modification of Strenuous Activity
Refrain from partaking in activities that put undue stress on your hand, wrist, and elbow.
Wrist splints and braces can help alleviate pain and improve grip strength for those experiencing symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis.
Wrist Splints & Braces
Guided Exercises and Physical Therapy
Depending on the stage of degeneration or your levels of pain, doctors will either recommend medications like ibuprofen and naproxen to help reduce swelling and pain, or something stronger.
Before partaking in any exercises that put stress on your hand, wrist or elbow, consult with a physical therapist to ensure said movements strengthen your injuries.
A treatment option that usually proceeds invasive surgical treatment, corticosteroid injections are administered to help ease pain and reduce inflammation — typically when patients don’t respond to the treatments listed above.
According to Dr. Penello, surgery to treat hand, wrist, and elbow arthritis “...can certainly alleviate the pain and improve function. There are a number of successful procedures that can be performed, which we customize to the nature of the arthritis, and the patient’s specific physical requirements.”
Joint arthroplasty surgery is a major procedure that we perform on an outpatient basis. By replacing a degenerated joint with an artificial prosthesis — which oftentimes requires extensive physical therapy — patients report better results.
We champion the use of state-of-the art prosthetics, which helps patients recover weeks quicker than traditional joint arthroscopy methods.
Total Joint Replacement
A total joint replacement procedure involves moving degenerated bones in the hand and wrist with prosthetics, which allows patients to maintain range of motion.
Other factors that determine whether or not you should have surgery include:
- Symptom duration: Your symptoms have persisted for six months or longer.
- Response to other treatments: If your conditions have not improved after multiple non-invasive treatments.
- Debilitating pain: Pain keeps you from performing basic tasks, and prevents you from sleeping.
- Loss of function: You are experiencing weakness and loss of function.
Hand, wrist, and elbow arthritis recovery
According to Dr. Penello, patients who undergo surgery are mainly focused on reducing pain, so they can function and complete their day-to-day tasks.
Incision healing, managing the rate of recovery, and regaining mobility all vary from patient to patient, and depend on multiple factors like age, type of arthritis and level of degeneration, and the invasiveness of the procedure we performed.
Trust our specialists to treat your hand, wrist, and elbow arthritis
At Alexander Orthopaedic Associates, our specialists are here to support your recovery, from arthritis diagnosis to treatment — whether surgical or non-surgical — and beyond.
We pride ourselves on creating personalized treatment plans for our patients. You can rely on our team of expert physicians and physical therapists to craft a hand, wrist, and elbow arthritis plan that meets your needs.