We use our hands and wrists to do most routine tasks—from getting dressed in the morning to driving a car or cooking dinner. Pain in this part of the body can truly interfere with daily life and over time, impact our overall quality of life. Not all hand and wrist pain needs medical care. So how do you know when to you see a doctor for wrist pain? Self-care strategies may offer relief for minor sprains and strains. More serious conditions require medical attention and physical therapy. Undiagnosed and untreated hand and wrist injuries can lead to chronic pain, limited range of motion, and permanent disability.
The wrist is a joint that acts as a “bridge” connecting the hand to the forearm. It is comprised of several smaller joints including the joints in each of our fingers that enable movement.
Muscles are the tissues that help create movement throughout the body. In the hand, we have intrinsic muscles that control fine motor movement in the fingers such as writing, and extrinsic muscles that control larger movements of the hand and wrist such as picking up a heavy item.
Ligaments are the connective tissues that support the bones of the hand and wrist and hold them in place. Tendons are another type of connective tissue that connect muscle to bone and also stabilize movement.
Nerves carry electrical signals from the brain to the muscles in the hand and forearm to trigger movement. These nerves also transfer the sensations of touch, temperature, and pain back to the brain. Blood vessels run along the nerves and supply blood to the hand. Injuries, overuse, and disease can affect any of these structures in the wrist and hand causing symptoms.
Minor acute wrist and hand pain can sometimes be relieved with at-home therapies including rest, warm and cold compresses, and over-the counter oral or cream nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs.) However, pain and symptoms that persist for more than a day or two should be checked out by a healthcare provider.
Also, if you experience a sudden and serious accident like a fall or sports injury and think you may have a possible tear or fracture, you should seek prompt medical attention. If pain and swelling last for more than a few days or become worse, it’s time to see your doctor.
Other signs you need medical care for hand and wrist pain include:
• Difficulty moving your wrist, hand, or fingers
• Pain that persists even while your hand is at rest
• Limited range of motion in the hand, wrist, or fingers
• Painful tingling that radiates up or down your arm
• Unusual swelling or redness in the forearm, wrist, fingers, or hand
Please note, these guidelines are general and not meant as a substitute for medical care. If you are not sure when to see a healthcare professional for wrist pain, it’s always best to err on the side of caution and schedule an exam to be sure.
Here are some common causes of pain in the hand and wrist.
Arthritis is not a single disease, but an umbrella term for more than 100 different conditions that affect the joints. Osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis that is caused by a breakdown in the cartilage that cushions the ends of our bones.
When that happens, the bones can rub together causing inflammation, pain, stiffness, and reduced mobility. The wrists and some of the joints that form the fingers are often affected by osteoarthritis of the hands.
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is another common form of arthritis. RA is a chronic inflammatory disease that often attacks the joints of the hand and wrist and can lead to deformities of these joints without treatment.
The carpal tunnel is a passageway traveling from the wrist to the hand that is made up of tendons, ligaments, and bones. The median nerve also passes through the carpal tunnel and provides sensation to the thumb and fingers (except for the pinky.)
If the lining of the carpal tunnel or the tendons within become irritated, the tunnel narrows, compressing that median nerve. Tingling, numbness, or pain in the hand and/or wrist may be signs of carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS.) CTS can be caused by a single trauma to the wrist, repeated motions, or sometimes no obvious cause at all.
When you lose your balance, your first instinct may be to try to break your fall with your hands and arms. Although it may spare you more serious injuries, you may end up with a sprain, strain, or fracture in the hand or wrist. Falls, car accidents, and high-impact sports are some of the most common causes of painful hand and wrist injuries.
As the name suggests, a repetitive strain injury (RSI) is damage to the nerves, tendons, or muscles caused by constant use of a certain part of the body or repeating the same motion for prolonged periods of time. Any movement or motion when it is repeated again and again can lead to an RSI.
Tendinitis is just one example of this type of injury. This is inflammation of the tough wrist tissues that connect the muscles in the bones of the hand to those of the forearm. Tendinitis often occurs from overuse. Individuals who have a job or hobby that put significant stress on the wrist tendons can develop tendonitis. In other cases, tendonitis is caused by a strain or other type of sudden injury.
Physical therapy is frequently prescribed for conditions that cause hand and wrist pain. It is usually one component of a larger treatment plan to address structural damage, health conditions, and lifestyle factors that may be causing hand pain.
Every patient’s hand physical therapy program is customized based on their own symptoms and treatment goals. Someone with arthritis, for example, will benefit from exercises to improve grip strength.
Another patient experiencing hand and wrist pain due to CTS may find relief with certain manual therapy techniques and practice correcting postural issues. An initial screening is the best way to find out if physical therapy is right for you. Find a physical therapy clinic near you.