Arthritis of the Hand, Wrist, and Elbow

Arthritis (from the Latin arth: joint; -itis: inflammation) is a condition of inflammation of the joints. All the joints of the body are articulations of bones, lined by cartilage at the joint surface. Cartilage is a smooth bearing surface, which provides a cushion between the bones and a lubricated surface (with joint fluid) to encourage friction free motion. Arthritis occurs most commonly when the cartilage lining begins to wear out. The joint becomes inflamed, swollen and painful.

The most common joint in the hand to be affected by arthritis is the first carpo-metacarpal joint, at the base of the palm on the thumb side. Patients with arthritis at this joint will usually complain of pain turning keys in doors, opening jars, and heavy gripping activities.

Arthritis also commonly occurs at the wrist (the joint between the forearm radius bone and the small bones in the hand). Often this occurs years after a fracture of the wrist. This can be debilitating for manual laborers who rely on strength of the hand and wrist to perform their jobs.

Another common location for arthritis in the hand is at the small joints in the fingers (the interphalangeal joints). Here, arthritis can lead to bony growths at the joints that can be unsightly and can also result in deformity at these joints.

The elbow is a less common location for arthritis, but it can be very debilitating if it exists. Usually from earlier trauma or fracture, elbow arthritis can progress and lead to considerable pain.

Arthritis is a treatable condition. We generally recommend treatment only when the symptoms of pain and weakness become debilitating. Various forms of treatment are used for arthritis, from simple splints and anti-inflammatory drugs, to steroid injections into the joint, to joint replacement surgery or fusion and joint elimination. Methods of joint replacement exist for most of the joints of the upper extremity, including the elbow, wrist, thumb first carpo-metacarpal joint or the small interphalangeal joints. Whether such a procedure is right for you must be discussed with your doctor, based upon your individual symptoms, general health, and expectations.