How Hand Surgeons Treat Arthritis of the Hand

Although no treatment can reverse or even slow arthritis of the hand, a number of treatments provide relief from pain.  Understanding the options hand surgeons are able to offer helps reduce the stress associated with this frustrating condition.

Overview of Arthritis of the Hand

Both the hand and the wrist contain small joints that allow individuals to perform intricate motions such as needlework.  According to the Cleveland Clinic, the term arthritis applies to 300 inflammatory conditions of the joints.  A hand specialist defines arthritis of the hand as inflammation of at least one joint in the hand.

The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons cites two major causes of hand arthritis:  disorders such as osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis and trauma, especially dislocations and joint surface damage.

The symptoms of hand arthritis usually become very familiar to sufferers:

  • Pain:  Often a dull sensation or one of burning, it peaks after significant joint use such as repeated grasping.  Stiffness and pain in the morning are common.  Sometimes pain linked to usage does not appear until the next day.
  • Swelling:  A joint can attempt to protect itself from further use by swelling
  • Changes in other joints:  Thumb base arthritis can cause neighboring joints to take on extra mobility.
  • Heat:  An affected joint sometimes feels warm due to inflammation.
  • Grinding or looseness:  The cause is damaged areas of cartilage rubbing on each other.
  • Cysts:  They sometimes appear with arthritis that strikes the end joint of the finger.

Treatment Options from a Hand Doctor

Patients seeking relief from hand arthritis typically see a hand surgeon.  The appropriate treatment depends on the number of joints affected, the patient’s overall medical status and lifestyle, whether the disorder affects the dominant hand, and the extent to which the arthritis has progressed.

Physicians are able to offer four types of treatment:

  • Medication:  Although they cannot reverse damage to joints or rebuild cartilage, anti-inflammatories like ibuprofen and acetaminophen prevent the manufacture of chemicals responsible for pain and swelling.
  • Injections:  They usually contain a combination of a steroid and an anesthetic designed to ward off pain for as long as months.  With success, a hand doctor might opt to repeat them, but only for a limited number of administrations because of potential side effects.
  • Splinting:  A hand specialist frequently splints an arthritic hand joint along with administering injections.  Most physicians recommend wearing splits only when the joint exhibits pain.
  • Hand surgery:  When other treatments are not successful, surgery becomes a consideration.  Although there are many types, the goal is always relieving pain for the long term and restoring joint function.  While a joint fusion relieves pain by removing damaged surfaces from a joint, it prevents movement.  Technology improvements now permit surgeons to replace small hand joints with ceramic or plastic and metal components.