Perhaps you’ve had trouble opening jars lately, gripping a tennis racket, holding on to a broom or a cup while taking a sip of water. Does your wrist throb, swell, or feel tender and painful to the touch? You may also hear clicking, grinding, or cracking sounds when you move it. A possible explanation is wrist arthritis, and a visit to a hand surgeon or orthopedic doctor could likely confirm this.
The wrist may seem like a simple joint, but it’s a lot more complex than you might think. It’s made up of multiple, smaller joints. When the wrist is functioning well, its bones glide smoothly over each other, protected by smooth cartilage that covers the joint surfaces. However, arthritis can damage cartilage, causing the bones to rub against each other. This can lead to wrist weakness, swelling, limited mobility, and pain.
There are several types of arthritis. Osteoarthritis, the most common, is caused by normal wear and tear that occurs over time. Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic disease affecting joints throughout the body and it often starts in smaller joints like the wrist. It’s the result of the body’s immune systems turning on itself and damaging healthy cartilage. Post-traumatic arthritis can develop after an injury— sometimes immediately and other times years after the event.
If your wrist is getting worse, becoming more painful and interfering with your quality of life, it may be time to visit a specialist. The physician will evaluate:
In addition to a physical examination, your doctor may also order x-rays and blood tests.
As with many orthopedic issues, treatment begins conservatively and becomes more advanced if necessary. When wrist arthritis is mild, limiting or avoiding activities that cause discomfort are the first line of defense. Immobilizing the wrist with a splint could also help.
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications like aspirin, naproxen, and ibuprofen can relieve the pain and swelling and may be prescribed by your physician.
Your physician may also suggest physical therapy to improve range of motion and function. Steroid injections may be effective at reducing inflammation if the discomfort is more severe, although the relief is often only temporary.
If none of these treatments provide long-term relief for your wrist pain or lack of function, your doctor may recommend surgery. Different types of surgeries, with varying degrees of complexity can be performed, including removing nerves and bones, fusing bones together, and/or partial or total wrist replacement. The goal is to conserve as much of the native structure and anatomy in the joint as possible, which results in the preservation of the natural movement of the joint. Innovations like the WristMotion® Total Wrist Arthroplasty (TWA) System do exactly this. While some surgeries may limit how the wrist moves, the WristMotion TWA system preserves the joint’s rotational freedom and preserves dart thrower’s motion (like flicking your wrist), making it a great alternative to wrist fusion.
Untreated wrist arthritis can severely limit your activities, but with the proper treatment, you may once again be opening jars and swinging at tennis balls like a pro.