What are the early signs of arthritis?

Many people fail to realize how much they use their hands until discomfort makes many normal daily tasks impossible.  Millions of Americans suffer from arthritic hands without knowing what causes their pain.  Understanding the early signs can lead to early treatment, a better outcome, and less patient anxiety. 

Causes and Signs of Painful Hands

Each hand and wrist consists of small joints that work in conjunction with each other to cause movement.  Arthritic disorders are a major cause of hand pain.  According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, while there are more than 100 distinct kinds, the most common is osteoarthritis, followed by rheumatoid arthritis.  All types track to inflammation of one or more joints. 

Healthy joint movement depends on cartilage, a smooth and slippery tissue covering the ends of bones.  Cartilage provides a smooth surface on which a joint glides.  Synovial fluid lubricates this surface.

In general, arthritic symptoms appear gradually. As cartilage erodes, a joint is less able to absorb shocks.  Symptoms increase in frequency with disease progression.

One of the early signs is a pain in the hand that patients describe as a burning or a dull sensation.  Sometimes it is immediately present, although it could appear later the same day or the next. MedicineNet.com reports that pain in the hand and its fingers often develops after the individual has held an object for an extended period.  Many patients complain of pain and stiffness that bother them most in the morning or on rainy days.

As the disorder progresses, an affected joint begins to swell in an attempt to prevent further use.  It might even feel warm as the body responds to the inflammation. 

In advanced basilar joint cases, joints next to the affected thumb sometimes become overly mobile.  Eventually, damaged cartilage surfaces in the hand rub again each other.  The joint might look bigger than normal due to swelling, cartilage loss, and bone changes.  When the disorder strikes finger end joints, small cysts sometimes form.

Hand Treatment Options

Taking advantage of a free hand screening can detect a disorder causing hand pain before it reaches a debilitating stage.  A hand specialist will examine each hand to make an initial diagnosis and help restore a quality of life.  Early hand treatment is often the key to avoiding years of hand pain.

Physicians use both non-surgical and surgical therapies to relieve the symptoms associated with arthritic hands.  The treatment plan depends on the stage of disease progression, the number of joints involved, and the patient’s overall health and lifestyle.  Non-surgical options include:

  • Medications such as ibuprofen and acetaminophen
  • Splinting to rest a joint
  • Injections that combine a steroid with a long-term anesthetic

When nonsurgical therapy fails, one of many surgical options might be appropriate.  Hand specialists always tailor the choice to individual needs.