Arthritis is a group of diseases characterized by inflammation of one or more joints in the body. The most common types of arthritis are osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis, and the hand is one of the most commonly affected body parts.


Osteoarthritis, also known as degenerative arthritis or degenerative joint disease, is the most common type of arthritis and generally occurs in elderly individuals. This type of arthritis is caused by “wear and tear” and worsens gradually over time. As osteoarthritis progresses, it can cause thinning of the cartilage until it is completely gone, causing bone to rub on bone.

In addition to older age, risk factors for osteoarthritis of the hand include heavy and repetitive usage of and previous trauma to the hands. There may be a genetic component predisposing some people to develop osteoarthritis at an earlier age. Women tend to develop osteoarthritis more frequently and earlier, and obesity is another known risk factor.

Rheumatoid Arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis is caused by an autoimmune disorder. The symptoms may come and go, and they vary greatly between individuals. Rheumatoid arthritis targets the synovium, the soft tissue that lines the joints and tendons throughout the body, and affects most, if not all, joints of the body. The cause of rheumatoid arthritis is currently not known, although genetic factors are likely involved.

Symptoms of Arthritis of the Hand

The symptoms associated with arthritis of the hand differ depending on the type of arthritis and the stage of the disease. Symptoms of osteoarthritis of the hand include swelling, stiffness of the joint, chronic pain, a grinding sensation accompanied by a “crunchy” sound when moving the joint, reduced range of motion of the affected joints and formation of mucus cysts near the tip of the fingers.

In the early stages, the symptoms may include only dull pain or a burning sensation, especially after periods of increased joint use. The pain is not always immediate and may instead show up after several hours or even the next day. Particularly, pain and stiffness the following morning are common. However, it is important to note that not everyone experiences these symptoms and that the severity varies from person to person.

As any intervention will be more effective the earlier osteoarthritis is diagnosed, early assessment by a physical medicine and rehabilitation or chronic pain specialist is essential. As osteoarthritis progresses, the hand may become deformed and you may experience difficulty in gripping objects and drop things more easily.

While most symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis of the hand are similar to those of osteoarthritis, additional symptoms associated with this type of arthritis include redness of the skin and fatigue in addition to simultaneous pain and stiffness of many other joints of the body.

How Is Arthritis of the Hand Treated?

While there in no definite treatment for arthritis, there are several things you can do to help alleviate the symptoms. Avoid doing any activity that causes exacerbation of the symptoms and warm up your hands using moist heat in the morning and ice them at the end of the day. Medications such as anti-inflammatory drugs or steroid injections, certain supplements such as glucosamine and specific hand exercises may help in some cases. In extreme cases, orthopedic surgery may be needed.

The earlier the inflammation is treated, the better the prognosis is. If you suspect that you may be suffering from hand arthritis, contact your physical medicine and rehabilitation doctor today.

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