What is hand arthritis?

Hand arthritis results from wear and tear on joints of the hands.
Hand arthritis results from wear and tear on joints of the hands.

Arthritis refers to a medical condition that involves inflammation (swelling) of one or more joints in the body. Arthritis may cause joint destruction and necessitate joint replacement if the disability is severe enough. 

A joint is the area where two bones meet. Within joints is a tissue called cartilage that acts as a cushion between two bony surfaces. Synovial fluid within joints protects them and helps facilitate movement. Synovial fluid is secreted by the inner lining of the joint called the synovial membrane. Hand arthritis occurs when there is inflammation in one or more joints of the hand and wrist. There are over 100 types of arthritis. A few of the common types of arthritis that affect the hands are osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, post-traumatic arthritis (arthritis as a result of an injury), psoriatic arthritis and gout. The two most common types of arthritis that affect the hands are osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. Hand osteoarthritis occurs when there is wear and tear of one or more joints of the hand as seen with increasing age. Rheumatoid arthritis occurs when the body’s immune system attacks the joints of the hand.

What are the early signs of arthritis in the hands?

The early symptoms of arthritis may vary depending on several factors such as the type of arthritis, age of the individual and which joint is involved.

Some of the early signs and symptoms of hand arthritis include

  • Stiffness in the joints, especially in the morning
  • Pain or ache in the affected area
  • Swelling at the affected site
  • Decreased range of motion of the affected joint
  • The skin over the affected joint that may appear red and inflamed
  • Loss of function of the involved joint or muscle
  • A grating sensation or “popping” sound when the joint moves
  • Loss of muscle mass at the affected site
  • Presence of small, bony bump-like swellings on the hand
  • The skin over the affected joint may be warm to the touch
  • Psoriatic arthritis (pitted nails and skin plaques)
  • Deformities in the affected hands and fingers
  • Fever, if the arthritis is due to an infection

How do doctors diagnose hand arthritis?

Diagnosis of hand arthritis by a doctor may involve:

  • Detailed medical history: The doctor may ask questions about the patient’s symptoms including their onset and severity, any underlying health conditions, any history of injury or surgery and family history of any related health conditions. The doctor may also ask the patient if they are on any medications or supplements.
  • Physical examination: A thorough physical examination will be done to look for
    • Joint swelling
    • Presence of any rashes or skin changes
    • Nail changes
    • Deformities
    • Range of motion
    • Signs of arthritis in any other part of the body
    • Weakness of the affected joint and muscles
    • Tenderness
    • Any signs of injuries or trauma
  • Imaging studies: They are crucial because they help the doctor to see the condition of the involved bones, joint spaces and muscles. Imaging studies such as X-ray, computed tomography (CT) scan and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) may be done.
  • Blood tests: They may be done especially in the case of rheumatoid arthritis. Blood tests may also help the doctor know about the presence of infections or nutrient deficiencies that may contribute to the disease. Associated health conditions such as high serum uric acid levels (as seen in gout) and increased blood sugar levels (as seen in diabetes) may also be explored through blood tests.
  • Synovial fluid examination: This involves withdrawing a small amount of synovial fluid and examining it in the lab. This may reveal the presence of joint space infection or the presence of uric acid crystals (gout).


What Is Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA)? Symptoms, Treatment, Diagnosis See Slideshow

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Medically Reviewed on 2/16/2022
Medscape Medical Reference

American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. <https://orthoinfo.aaos.org/en/diseases--conditions/arthritis-of-the-hand/#:~:text=Early%20symptoms%20of%20arthritis%20of,or%20even%20the%20following%20day<.

Cleveland Clinic. <https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/7082-arthritis-of-the-wrist-and-hand/diagnosis-and-tests>.

University of Chicago Medicine. <https://www.uchicagomedicine.org/forefront/orthopaedics-articles/how-to-treat-arthritis-in-the-hands>.