Rheumatoid arthritis in the hands

Rheumatoid arthritis in the hands

Rheumatoid arthritis in the hands is a chronic autoimmune disease that causes inflammation of the joints and the tendons of the fingers, hand and wrist. Autoimmune diseases occur when your body is attacked by its own immune system. Inflammation from rheumatoid arthritis can become so severe that the joints of your fingers and wrists are deformed, making it difficult to move. Other joints such as the knee also can be affected. Additionally, lumps known as rheumatoid nodules may form on your hands, wrists, arms and legs.

Symptoms

Rheumatoid arthritis often causes inflammation symmetrically in your body: the same joints are affected on both sides. For example, if you have rheumatoid arthritis in one hand, it will most likely affect the other hand, too. Each individual may experience symptoms differently. You may experience some or all of these common symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis in the hands:

  • Pain
  • Stiffness 
  • Swelling over the joints
  • Decreased movement
  • Pain that is worse with movement of the joints
  • Difficulty performing daily activities such as tying shoes, opening jars or buttoning shirts
  • Decreased ability to grasp or pinch
  • Bumps may develop over the small joints, forearm and elbow
  • Soft lump on the back of the hand that moves as the fingers straighten
  • Formation of a sharp, obstructive bend in the fingers (angulation) or collapse of fingers
  • Sudden inability to straighten or bend a finger because of a tendon rupture
  • The middle joint of a finger becomes bent and deformed
  • The end of the finger is bent and the middle joint over extends (swan-neck deformity)
  • Prominent bones in the wrist

If a person has four or more of the following symptoms, rheumatoid arthritis in the hands may be diagnosed:

  • Morning stiffness that lasts longer than one hour for at least six weeks
  • Three or more joints that are inflamed for at least six weeks
  • Presence of arthritis in the hand, wrist or finger joints for at least six weeks
  • Blood tests that reveal rheumatoid factors
  • X-rays that show characteristic changes in the joints

The symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis in the hands may resemble other medical conditions, so it is important to consult your doctor about your symptoms. 

Causes

The exact cause of rheumatoid arthritis in the hands is not known. Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disorder, which means the body's immune system attacks its own tissues. The body's response to the attack causes inflammation in and around the joints and eventually may destroy the joints and surrounding structures such as tendons. Rheumatoid arthritis also may have devastating effects on other organs such as the heart and lungs. Risk factors for rheumatoid arthritis include:

  • Family history of rheumatoid arthritis
  • Women are at greater risk than men.  Among the number of people suffering from rheumatoid arthritis, seventy percent are women and thirty percent are men.
  • Rheumatoid arthritis occurs more often between the ages of 30 and 50.
  • Two-thirds of people with rheumatoid arthritis have hand and wrist problems.

Treatment

Treatments for rheumatoid arthritis of the hands range from nonsurgical treatments -  anti-inflammatory and other disease-modifying drugs, hand therapy lifestyle changes -  to surgical procedures that reduce pain and restore functionality to the affected areas.

The experienced hand and wrist experts at Northwell Health Orthopaedic Institute treat rheumatoid arthritis in the hands and wrists as well as a broad range of conditions affecting those areas.

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