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What Is Wrist Arthritis? Signs You Have It and How to Treat It, According to Physical Therapists

Learn about wrist arthritis and possible causes. Get tips to manage pain from wrist arthritis and simple exercises from physical therapists to feel better.

Published Date: Jul 13, 2023
elderly-woman-holding-her-wrist-in-pain

You use your wrists for all sorts of everyday activities: typing, opening jars, getting dressed, brushing your teeth, and combing your hair, to name just a few. If you experience wrist pain that restricts movement, these simple activities can quickly become very frustrating. One of the most common causes of wrist pain is wrist arthritis. 

It’s normal for the structures in your body to change with time, including your joints. While wrist arthritis doesn’t always cause symptoms, it can contribute to pain, stiffness, and reduced range of motion. Arthritis isn’t the only cause of persistent wrist pain, and a lot of people can reduce their wrist pain and continue to do their usual activities and hobbies despite an arthritis diagnosis. While wrist pain related to arthritis can be difficult to live with, conservative measures — such as over-the-counter medications, hot and cold treatment, activity modification, and physical therapy — can go a long way in managing arthritis symptoms.

Hinge Health members frequently report that doing targeted exercises helps ease their wrist pain. As one shared: “The wrist pain upon waking up in the morning seems to have ceased.” Another told us, “My wrists are doing better than a couple weeks ago. They do not hurt all the time now.”

Here, learn more about the symptoms and treatments for wrist arthritis, especially therapeutic exercises from Hinge Health physical therapists.

Our Hinge Health Experts

Laura Reising, PT, DPT
Physical Therapist
Dr. Reising is a Hinge Health physical therapist and board-certified orthopedic specialist with over 10 years of experience. She specializes in performing arts medicine.
Jonathan Lee, MD, MBA
Orthopedic Surgeon and Medical Reviewer
Dr. Lee is a board-certified orthopedic surgeon and an Associate Medical Director at Hinge Health.
Dylan Peterson, PT, DPT
Physical Therapist and Clinical Reviewer
Dr. Peterson is a Hinge Health physical therapist who focuses on developing clinical exercise therapy programs and member education.

Wrist Arthritis: A Hinge Health Perspective

Your first instinct when you experience wrist arthritis pain may be to limit your movement. But that’s outdated thinking. Movement is one of the best things you can do for wrist arthritis. “Motion is lotion when it comes to managing wrist arthritis,” points out Laura Reising, PT, DPT, a physical therapist at Hinge Health. Movement helps wrist arthritis pain because it helps to keep the remaining cartilage more healthy and strengthens weaker muscles that often accompany arthritis and contribute to pain. 

Movement can be challenging when you have pain, which is why you want to try to find your movement sweet spot, says Dr. Reising. “I tell patients it’s okay to push through minor discomfort, but to stop if they experience severe pain. Movement keeps your wrists healthy, but you still need to listen to your body.”

You may not be able to control every factor involved in your wrist arthritis, but with exercises and healthy lifestyle changes, you’ll be able to manage your symptoms and help keep your wrists moving so you can stay active.

What Is Wrist Arthritis?

Wrist arthritis is very common — it’s estimated that one in seven Americans experiences it, according to the National Library of Medicine. Arthritis is a term that comes from the Greek words arthro (meaning “joint”) and itis (meaning “inflammation”). Arthritis literally means “joint inflammation,” though it’s more broadly considered a condition that affects joints, often by causing pain, stiffness, and swelling.

Your wrist is made up of multiple small joints. They work together to allow you to move your wrist. The ends of the bones in these joints are covered in a smooth, slippery tissue called articular cartilage. Along with lubricating synovial fluid, articular cartilage allows your bones to “glide” during movement. Arthritis affects cartilage and synovial fluid in ways that can increase friction or cause inflammatory chemicals to accumulate, causing pain and stiffness.

Wrist arthritis symptoms may be confused with those of carpal tunnel syndrome, but the two conditions are quite different. “Carpal tunnel syndrome is caused by nerve compression or irritation, whereas wrist arthritis occurs due to cartilage changes,” points out Dr. Reising. “Most carpal tunnel syndrome symptoms affect your hand and fingertips, while wrist arthritis tends to be isolated to your wrist.” 

But wrist arthritis can raise your risk of developing carpal tunnel syndrome, she notes, since inflammation can increase pressure in the carpal tunnel, or the passageway in your wrist that your median nerve travels through. 

While arthritis may be more common in weight-bearing joints like your knees and hips, wrist arthritis can be very challenging. “It really impacts your everyday life, making it harder to do things like type, cook, and do simple exercises like push-ups, not to mention activities you love like tennis or bowling,” says Dr. Reising.

Types of Wrist Arthritis 

There are many types of arthritis that can affect your hands and wrists. The three most common types of wrist arthritis are:

  • Osteoarthritis(OA). This is one of the most common forms, affecting more than 54 million Americans. It’s characterized by gradual changes in the cartilage in a joint and tends to affect your dominant hand and wrist more. 

  • Posttraumatic arthritis. You may develop this form of wrist arthritis after an injury like a broken wrist or a torn ligament that damaged cartilage, notes Dr. Reising. It may develop many years after the initial injury. “I’ve had patients who hurt their wrists in their late teens go on to develop arthritis in their 30s or 40s,” she says. 

  • Inflammatory arthritis. This broad category of arthritis is due to autoimmune conditions, where your immune system attacks and damages healthy tissue, including those in your joints. It often starts in smaller joints like your wrists. With rheumatoid arthritis, symptoms are often symmetrical (meaning they affect both wrists). Other forms of inflammatory arthritis, like psoriatic arthritis, may only affect one wrist. 

What Causes Wrist Arthritis?

Arthritis is due to a combination of factors. And although it’s more common in adults over the age of 50, you can develop arthritis at any time, including after a trauma or injury to the joint, says Dr. Reising. Whether it’s due to an inflammatory condition, injury, or age-related cartilage changes, wrist arthritis can cause symptoms like:

  • Pain

  • Swelling

  • Stiffness

  • Reduced range of motion

  • Joint weakness (you may notice that it’s harder to do things like unscrew a jar, says Dr. Reising) 

If you notice any of the above symptoms and they don’t improve with conservative treatments (see examples below), see your doctor or schedule an appointment with a physical therapist. They can check your hand and wrist and look for signs of wrist arthritis. They may also run blood tests to check for signs of inflammatory arthritis.

Treatment Options for Wrist Arthritis

There’s no cure for wrist arthritis, but there are plenty of things you can do so you can stay active and get back to all the activities you love. Here are some options for wrist arthritis treatment:

Physical therapy. A physical therapist can show you specific exercises that improve strength, flexibility, and range of motion in your wrists, points out Dr. Reising. They can also help you develop a workout program that keeps you active and doing activities you enjoy, while also minimizing wrist pain. You can see a physical therapist in person or use a program like Hinge Health to access a PT via telehealth/video visit.

Modify your activities. There’s no need to put your life on hold because you have wrist arthritis. But you may want to tweak your normal activities to manage your pain. “For instance, if you need to clean out your basement and you know it may aggravate your wrist pain, then spread the work out over several days,” advises Dr. Reising. Or if you know that you’ll have to spend most of your workday typing on your computer, save cooking an elaborate meal that involves a lot of cutting and chopping for the weekend.

Use wrist splints strategically. You want to move your wrists throughout the day to help keep them flexible and strong. But there are times where a wrist splint for a short time is appropriate, says Dr. Reising — for example, when you are about to start that basement cleanout mentioned above.

Take over-the-counter pain medications as needed. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medication (NSAIDs) such as naproxen (Aleve) and ibuprofen (Advil) can help treat wrist arthritis flares. Just speak to your doctor before you take anything to make sure that it’s safe for you to take these medications. Or consider using an over-the-counter anti-inflammatory cream such as Voltaren. “It contains an NSAID, but since it’s applied topically, there may be less risk of side effects, which is important if you’re an older adult or have heart, kidney, or liver disease,” says Dr. Reising.

Ice and/or moist heat. Some people find that ice relieves their wrist pain and stiffness, while others swear by using heat, like a warm towel or a hot water bottle. Another option is “contrast soaking,” where you alternate soaking your wrist in warm and cold water to help reduce swelling.

Note: If your wrist arthritis is due to a form of inflammatory arthritis, like rheumatoid arthritis, your doctor should refer you to a rheumatologist. Certain medications, known as disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs), have been shown to be very effective in preventing your immune system from attacking your joints.

Surgery for Wrist Arthritis

In very rare cases, your doctor may suggest surgery for wrist arthritis. This could be a proximal row carpectomy, (where your doctor removes certain wrist bones), fusion (where wrist bones are fused together), or a total wrist replacement. These should be considered a last resort. They’re typically considered only if you have significant pain or limitations after trying the above treatments, stresses Dr. Reising.

Exercises for Wrist Arthritis

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These exercises recommended by Hinge Health physical therapists can help keep your wrists strong and flexible to help relieve symptoms of wrist arthritis.

The information contained in these videos is intended to be used for educational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice or treatment for any specific condition. Hinge Health is not your healthcare provider and is not responsible for any injury sustained or exacerbated by your use of or participation in these exercises. Please consult with your healthcare provider with any questions you may have about your medical condition or treatment.

PT Tip: Give Your Mouse a Makeover

A simple switch to a vertical mouse when you work on your computer can significantly reduce wrist pain. “It requires less movement of your wrist than a flat mouse,” points out Dr. Reising. You’ll not only find it easier to click and scroll, but it will help keep your wrists feeling good for when you do activities that you enjoy, like playing tennis or pickleball.

How Hinge Health Can Help You

If you have joint or muscle pain that makes it hard to move, you can get the relief you’ve been looking for with Hinge Health’s online exercise therapy program. 

The best part: You don’t have to leave your home because our program is digital. That means you can easily get the care you need through our app, when and where it works for you.  

Through our program, you’ll have access to therapeutic exercises and stretches for your condition. Additionally, you’ll have a personal care team to guide, support, and tailor our program to you. 

See if you qualify for Hinge Health and confirm free coverage through your employer or benefit plan here.

This article and its contents are provided for educational and informational purposes only and do not constitute medical advice or professional services specific to you or your medical condition.

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References

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  2. Pidgeon, T. S., Jennings, C. D., & Brubacher, J. W. (2022, November). Arthritis of the Wrist. American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons. https://orthoinfo.aaos.org/en/diseases--conditions/arthritis-of-the-wrist/

  3. Jennings, C. D. & Brubacher, J. W. (April, 2016). Arthritis of the Wrist. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. https://orthoinfo.aaos.org/en/diseases--conditions/arthritis-of-the-wrist

  4. Arthritis statistics 2022. (January 20, 2022). The Checkup by SingleCare. https://www.singlecare.com/blog/news/arthritis-statistics/

  5. Rheumatoid Arthritis: Causes, Symptoms, Treatments and More. (2021, October 15). The Arthritis Foundation. https://www.arthritis.org/diseases/rheumatoid-arthritis   

  6. Arthritis Facts. (n.d.). Arthritis Foundation. Retrieved from https://www.arthritis.org/about-arthritis/understanding-arthritis/arthritis-statistics-facts.php

  7. Everything you need to know about osteoarthritis in the wrist. (2022, July 28). Medical News Today. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/osteoarthritis-wrist

  8. Moseley, L. G. (2011). A new direction for the fear avoidance model? Pain, 152(11), 2447–2448. doi: 10.1016/j.pain.2011.06.024

  9. Kolasinski, S. L. et. al. (2020). 2019 American College of Rheumatology/Arthritis Foundation Guideline for the Management of Osteoarthritis of the Hand, Hip, and Knee. American College of Rheumatology, 72(2), 220-233. doi:10.1002/art.41142