Hand Osteoarthritis Overview

Hand dexterity is enabled by a network of small joints that work together to produce motion. When impacted by arthritis-related inflammation, routine tasks can become difficult and affect the way you use your hand.

What is Hand Osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis, often known as “wear and tear” arthritis, affects an estimated 27 million people in the United States. The hand is the body part most frequently affected by the condition, which causes pain and decreased function of the hand.

Osteoarthritis can occur in many areas of the hand and wrist. In a healthy hand, a joint is made of two smooth bone surfaces covered in cartilage, a slippery tissue that provides an even platform ideally suited to gliding and allows the bone surfaces to fit well together. If the cartilage wears away, the fit becomes imperfect. The result is bone-on-bone contact, which leads to pain, stiffness and difficulty using the hand.

In people under 40, osteoarthritis of the hand is usually caused by an injury to the affected joint. For the majority of people, the most significant risk factor is age. Osteoarthritis of the hand is most likely to develop between the ages of 40 and 70.

Other risk factors include:

  • Having a job or hobby that involves repeated hand motions
  • Being female
  • A family history of hand osteoarthritis
  • Obesity

Osteoarthritis occurs most frequently in three sites:

  • At the base of the thumb, where the thumb and wrist come together
  • At the joint closest to the fingertip
  • At the middle joint of a finger

Symptoms of Hand Osteoarthritis

An early symptom of hand osteoarthritis is joint pain. It may produce a burning or a dull sensation. The pain may occur after engaging in a period of intense gripping or grasping of an object and may not be immediate. t's not unusual for the pain to start hours later, or even the next day. In advanced stages, the pain can disturb sleep.

Other symptoms include:

  • Morning pain and stiffness in the hand
  • Increased joint pain during rainy weather
  • Difficulty with daily activities such as twisting off tops or using house keys 
  • Swelling of the affected joint
  • Warmth in the affected joint, due to inflammation
  • A sensation of grating or grinding in the affected joint, caused by damaged cartilage surfaces rubbing against each other


Your doctor will examine your hand. He or she will ask about your symptoms, and how they affect your daily activities. An x-ray of the joints will show if there are changes that are signs of arthritis. In some cases, a doctor may order a bone scan, which can help diagnose arthritis in its early stages, before it can be detected by an x-ray. Today's emphasis is on early diagnosis and preserving the damaged joint through arthroscopic surgery when necessary.

Updated on: 11/17/15
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