Aches and pains are just part of getting older – or at least that’s the conventional wisdom. So if you feel some stiffness in your hand or pain in your wrist, you might just assume it’s natural, and definitely not worth seeing a doctor about.
Left untreated, though, arthritis can make simple tasks such as getting dressed, answering the phone, or picking up your grandkids excruciating. The inflammation in your joints can cause stiffness, pain, and limited movement.
You don’t have to live with those persistent symptoms.
UT Southwestern hand specialists provide a range of treatment options to control arthritis pain and restore mobility – from medication, physical therapy, and injections to joint resurfacing and replacement. With more than 60 years of combined expertise, our hand surgeons are skilled in the most advanced techniques to repair and replace the delicate joints of the hand and wrist, as well as procedures to decrease pain.
There are effective options to manage pain and improve function regardless of how long you have had arthritis – even years after the onset of symptoms. The treatments your care team recommends will depend on the type of arthritis you have and how advanced it is.
3 common types of hand and wrist arthritis
Osteoarthritis (OA), the most common form of arthritis, results from natural wear and tear over a lifetime of using your joints. Cartilage (tough but flexible tissue that lines your joints) cushions against grinding between your bones. Over time, the cartilage wears away, leading to bone-on-bone contact that triggers painful inflammation.
For early-stage OA, when some healthy cartilage remains intact, we focus on supporting the joint with a splint or brace and easing discomfort. Over-the-counter medicines such as ibuprofen or Tylenol help reduce inflammation and pain. Some patients are good candidates for steroid injections, which reduce inflammation and decrease pain.
Inflammatory arthritis is usually caused by autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis or psoriatic arthritis. Severe inflammation in these conditions eats away the cartilage, resulting in bone-on-bone contact.
With inflammatory arthritis, prevention is the best cure. Medical treatment (rather than surgery) can treat the inflammation and prevent damage to the cartilage, thereby keeping arthritis from developing. A rheumatologist can create a personalized care plan to manage the disease or keep the condition at bay.
Post-traumatic arthritis is the result of an injury that didn’t heal properly, such as a fracture or torn ligament. Misaligned bones and tissues greatly increase stress on the joint, causing the cartilage to wear out much faster than usual, just like unbalanced automobile tires wear out unevenly.
First-line treatments like splints, medications such as ibuprofen and Tylenol, and steroid injections can reduce pain and improve range of motion. However, sometimes surgery is the best option in post-traumatic arthritis.
Surgical options for pain management
If nonsurgical treatments no longer control the pain, or if symptoms continue to get worse, we might recommend surgery. Most hand surgeries last about 30-60 minutes and are performed as outpatient procedures. Typically, they require general anesthesia, so you should plan for someone to take you home after surgery.
After most of these procedures, you will wear a brace, splint, or cast for two to 12 weeks. Hand physical therapy is essential to restore normal range of motion. Depending on the extent of your surgery, you can expect to return to most daily activities between two weeks and three months.
Here are some examples of the type of surgery your doctor might recommend:
While arthritis is common with age, it’s not a “normal part of aging” – it’s a condition that can and should be treated to improve your daily quality of life.
If hand or wrist arthritis symptoms are making simple tasks difficult, talk with a specialist. Seeking support early gives you a chance to explore more treatment options and make educated care decisions.