Help, My Hand Hurts!
Hand pain is debilitating. Whether you’re trying to tie shoelaces, cut vegetables for dinner, or respond quickly to your work emails: hand pain can hold you back.
It’s minor enough that medical intervention isn’t always necessary, but often painful enough to make everyday life miserable.
Luckily, this is where we enter the picture.
We’re here to guide you to discover the cause of your hand pain, the different ways pain can manifest and affect you, and the treatments available to make your life easier. Plus, we promise this will be fun too, in that way only reading about hand pain can be fun.
Help is on the way! Let’s get started.
Causes of Hand Pain
Hand pain has a number of causes. To receive a formal diagnosis, you will have to see a doctor. However, there is a lot of available information to at least get you started in the right direction. Keep in mind before you start looking for answers on treating the pain, you’ll want to know WHY the pain is present in the first place. In other words, having a diagnosis will help you better understand why hand pain exists, what can be done to exacerbate it, and how best to treat it. Because you probably wouldn’t put compression gloves on a broken finger.
First, determine how your hand pain feels. Get in touch with your hands, instead of letting them get in touch with everything else. Here are some questions to get you started:
- Where is the pain? Joints? Fingers? Wrist? Determine where the pain itself is coming from!
- When does the hand pain begin? Is it worse at a particular time of day, or during specific weather?
- Does the pain get worse from use, or better?
- Have you done anything to injure your hands lately - including overusing them preparing Thanksgiving dinner or staying up all night playing video games?
- Is the pain in one hand, or both hands?
Once you have a good understanding of how the pain works, and where it’s coming from, it will be easier to determine what exactly is causing hand pain. And then, we can move on to treating it.
There are oh-so-many reasons hand pain can occur. Here’s a brief rundown of the most common causes and their relevant symptoms (keep reading for more detailed descriptions!):
One of the most common causes of hand pain, especially joint pain, is arthritis. In fact, arthritis is so common that I suspect you stumbled onto this blog looking specifically for arthritis help, or by searching for hand pain that is NOT arthritis.
When you wake up on a chilly morning and feel tightness, swelling, or pain in your hands - especially when trying to move them - arthritis is a very likely explanation. But, what exactly IS arthritis?
Simply put, arthritis is joint inflammation. It is not one disease, but a catchall term for a number of related conditions that cause joint pain. In fact, there are over 100 types of arthritis! They can affect different parts of the body, depending on the type of arthritis that a person has. Some are caused by ageing (but just as many are not). Some are autoimmune, which means the body just started attacking its own joints (very kind of it!). Others are symptoms of a different condition: gout, for example, can cause swelling which causes joint pain.
It’s a lot. But I’m not here to overwhelm you!
There are three types of arthritis that most commonly affect the joints in the hand and cause joint pain. It’s extremely likely that if you’re suffering from hand pain, and you get an arthritis diagnosis, you have either osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, or psoriatic arthritis.
Osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis. This form of arthritis is caused by the normal wear and tear of ageing. As we get older, our bodies (rudely) start to break down, and this can affect bones and joints. Bones are protected by a cushion of cartilage, and as bodies begin to age, cartilage slowly wears away like my understanding of teen slang. Without that layer of protection, the bones begin to rub against one another. This causes pain in those now-exposed joints, which in turn causes inflammation, which causes more pain. This pain can be felt all throughout the body as we age, but the hands and feet tend to get the brunt of pain - you simply use them more and feel it more acutely.
Osteoarthritis does not affect everyone, and certain risk factors may make you more susceptible. Women tend to get it more than men, and injuries, weight, and even your own genes (thanks, Grandma) can increase a person’s risk. Like most forms of arthritis, joint pain, stiffness, limited range of motion, and bone spurs can occur with osteoarthritis.
There are some symptoms of osteoarthritis, however, that are very clear hallmarks of the disease. If the hand pain worsens the more you use your hand, instead of better, there’s a good chance it’s osteoarthritis. Changes in the shape of the hand are also very common with this form of arthritis (I’m sorry!), as the joints form bone spurs and take on that gnarled knotty look so synonymous with the disease.
Another common form of arthritis and hand pain is rheumatoid arthritis. Unlike osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is not simply caused by the normal wear and tear of getting older. RA is an autoimmune condition, which means the body’s own immune system panics and starts attacking its own tissue.
Because of the way RA affects the body, one of the defining features of this type of arthritis is that it attacks both sides of the body equally. This means the joint pain and inflammation will likely affect both hands (or both feet, or both legs... or all of the above).
While other forms of arthritis depend more on which hand is dominant (“wear and tear”), RA is more of an equal opportunity disease. For this reason, it also isn’t just limited to aging populations. It can strike anyone - though not all cases are severe, and it can truly vary from person to person. RA also tends to flare-up, meaning some days are less severe than others.
Rheumatoid Arthritis is different from other forms of arthritis in a few key ways as well. RA causes swelling of the tendons in the hands, which is not always as common in other types (OA for example tends to be defined by wearing away of joints, or bones rubbing against each other, and not so much by swelling). Some people with RA notice that the joints loosen up after use, whereas osteoarthritis tends to cause more pain from use. RA also causes other symptoms outside of the joint pain - like fever and fatigue.
A third type of arthritis that causes hand pain is psoriatic arthritis. Psoriatic arthritis is a complication of a condition called psoriasis. Psoriasis is an autoimmune condition that causes inflammation in the body. Inflammation is the body’s response to injury - generally our body swells to protect an injured area and promote healing.
In psoriasis, however, this response happens without an underlying injury, so those afflicted experience inflammation without any cause. Psoriasis most commonly affects the skin, forcing skin cells to reproduce too quickly, which can lead to rash, plaque, and scaly patches on the body.
Psoriasis itself affects about 30% of the population, and about 30% of those with psoriasis also have psoriatic arthritis. (Still with me? I know, math!). This is a complication characterized by, you guessed it, inflammation in the joints of the hands (or feet). Like other kinds of arthritis, symptoms include joint pain, stiffness, and difficulty extending the fingers or grasping. Psoriatic Arthritis is different, however, because it also usually features swelling (sometimes extreme swelling of the fingers and toes), and non-hand-pain related symptoms like fatigue, other joint pain, and eye pain or redness.
Of course, not all hand pain is because of arthritis. There are many reasons a person may have hand, finger, thumb, or wrist pain that is not related to a form of arthritis.
Carpal Tunnel Syndrome is another common cause of hand pain.
This syndrome occurs when the median nerve (which controls feeling in most of the fingers) is compressed. This nerve travels from the wrist up into the palm of the hand, and during this journey it crosses through the carpal tunnel - a small passage in the wrist. If this area is inflamed for any reason, it puts pressure on the nerve. That pressure compresses the nerve, leading to the numbness, tingling, and pain that is often associated with carpal tunnel.
Carpal Tunnel Syndrome tends to be caused by either genetics (blame your parents!) or repetitive hand use. Sitting in front of a computer all day typing is one of the most common causes, though it’s also seen in factory workers, musicians, or anyone who keeps their hands in the same position for hours on end.
Unlike arthritis, carpal tunnel is characterized more by the weakness and numbness felt from the compression of the main nerve in the hand. Sufferers lose sensation, and sometimes struggle to pinch or grasp. Because the pinky finger has a separate nerve, the tingling and numbness is usually felt in the first three fingers more acutely.
Carpal Tunnel also tends to be worse at night (most people bend their wrists when asleep), or upon waking. As the syndrome worsens, triggers become very easy to spot, and sometimes simply switching positions or moving the fingers and wrists helps to relieve discomfort. There are also plenty of carpal tunnel-friendly ergonomic keyboards or support products available to make life easier.
Trigger Finger is another common source of hand pain. While not as common as arthritis, Trigger Finger affects around 2% of the population, and that number can be as much as 10% in high-risk demographics, such as diabetics or pregnant people.
Trigger Finger (also known as stenosing tenosynovitis) is an inflammation of the tendon in one finger. This inflammation can be the result of injury, overuse, or a related condition like arthritis. In a normal finger, the tendon glides smoothly along its sheath, which is what helps extend the finger. With Trigger Finger, however, that inflamed tendon gets stuck in a sheath that is suddenly too small. This results in the characteristic locking up of the digit.
On its own, Trigger Finger looks different from other hand-pain related conditions. It frequently affects just one finger or thumb, and not the whole hand. And it also features that aforementioned popping and locking as the person struggles to move the affected joint. It can also lock the finger in a bent position, making it impossible to straighten. Like most hand pain related conditions, Trigger Finger can be debilitating, as the pain limits everyday activities.
It’s important to note that if the finger is extremely painful, hot to the touch, or swelling, it could be injured or infected - please seek immediate medical attention if this is the case.
De Quervain’s Tenosynovitis
So far, we’ve covered arthritis, carpal tunnel, and trigger finger. If you’ve read through the list of symptoms and still aren’t finding something that exactly matches your pain, another possibility is a condition called De Quervain’s Tenosynovitis.
De Quervain’s is a painful hand condition that mostly affects the thumb and wrist.
Like Trigger Finger, it is a condition caused by swelling in the tendons, but in this condition it is the tendons along the thumb and on the thumb-side of the wrist. The main symptoms of this condition are wrist and thumb pain that worsens with movement, and pain when grasping or turning the wrist. It is sometimes mistaken for trigger finger, because the thumb can “lock up,” but trigger finger pain is usually more localized. De Quervain’s Tenosynovitis pain, on the other hand, spreads down to the wrist and can even travel up the forearm.
Of the hand conditions we’ve discussed, De Quervain’s is most likely to be caused by repetitive stress. If you have a job or hobby that keeps your wrist or thumb in a specific position, it can put stress on the tendon and cause swelling. Playing video games for a long amount of time can lead to De Quervain’s, as can racket sports, typing on a computer, or holding or feeding a baby.
De Quervain’s can also be the result of arthritis leading to swelling of the tendons, or injury that has weakened or scarred the area.
Other Hand Pain
I hear you. You’ve gotten this far and I still haven’t addressed your specific hand pain concern yet. Yes,there are other causes of hand pain beyond the common ones we’ve talked about!
The biggest cause of hand pain that isn’t autoimmune, wear-and-tear, or ageing related is injury. While this might seem obvious, sometimes we injure ourselves without even knowing it. Especially as we age. I personally have had hand pain manifest because of the way I carry two 25lb twin boys up and down the stairs all day, and it took me WAY too long to recognize that was why I was hurting!
Sometimes an injury isn’t as obvious as breaking a finger - you can injure your hand because you’ve been lifting weights all day and putting strain on your tendons and joints. Even constant repetitive motion can lead to pain that usually just needs some rest, and not a formal diagnosis.
Injury can also lead to the wear and tear that eventually turns into arthritis. Just another one of the many ways the mistakes of your youth will continue to haunt you.
Hand pain can also be a symptom of a different illness. Diabetes, gout, autoimmune illness, or diseases that affect the nerves or cause inflammation can all cause hand pain. For this reason, if you have persistent hand pain and it just doesn’t quite fit any of the preceding conditions discussed, you should check with a doctor.
Treating Hand Pain At Home
Whew. That was a ride, right? I imagine you’re feeling energized now that you have a better idea of the many causes of hand pain, and perhaps you now have a better idea of the specific reasons you’re waking up in the morning and experiencing hand discomfort. Happily, there are ways to address pain in the muscles, joints, and tendons of your poor unhappy hands: and many of these methods can be done from the comfort of your cozy, cozy couch.
Top 5 Ways to Treat Hand Pain at Home (the short version)
- Rest: Take it easy to allow swelling to heal, and give your hands a break.
- Compression Gloves or Splint: Helps reduce swelling, and keep hands stable. Especially useful for repetitive stress injuries, and can be worn overnight!
- Ice or Heat: Ice can reduce swelling and heat can help unforgiving joints.
- Medication: NSAIDs, like ibuprofen, can help manage swelling and pain. Gels and creams can provide pain relief.
- Lifestyle Changes: Changing activities, holding your hands differently when typing, or even adjusting your diet can help!
Best For: Arthritis, De Quervain’s
One of the easiest ways to help hand pain is simply by resting your hands.
Take a break from the activities that are causing pain. Switch to a different task, or, if possible, take time away from work or off from household chores. I know doing dishes is fun, but I insist! Resting can be extremely helpful for arthritis or De Quervain’s, which are exacerbated by overuse.
Compression Gloves or Splint
Best for: Arthritis, Carpal Tunnel, Trigger Finger (heck, we recommend these for everything!)
There are SO MANY great options for keeping hands stable and secure in order to keep you working, but without pain and inflammation. Compression Gloves wrap around your hands specifically to reduce swelling, which can in turn help with numbness and pain. They also come in a variety of sizes and styles - including textured for better grip, or copper for antimicrobial properties.
Many people also find that compression gloves worn while sleeping provide overnight relief, and keep the wrist from bending while you’re tossing and turning round the bed all night!
In addition to gloves, a splint or brace can help stabilize trigger finger or wrist pain. This provides a bit more stability than gloves, allowing the wearer to get back to their regularly scheduled life without worry.
Ice (to Reduce Swelling) or Heat (to Ease Muscle Pain)
Best for: Carpal Tunnel, De Quervain’s, Injury, possibly Arthritis
Another excellent way to reduce pain is using ice or heat on the hands.
Ice can reduce swelling and provide pain relief, especially for carpal tunnel, De Quervain’s, or swelling from injury. Heat is more effective for muscle and joint pain - think of heat as “warming up” before using the hands. For arthritis, you may even want to try both! Try heat to loosen joints and help you get moving, and cold after activity to reduce swelling.
Best for: All Hand Pain (with doctor recommendation please!)
Over-the-counter medications and creams can be extremely helpful in relieving annoying hand pain. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), like ibuprofen, can fight pain and reduce swelling (just avoid these medications if you are pregnant). Others swear by hand creams and gels designed to reduce pain, like Aspercreme or Tiger Balm.
Again, not all of these creams are good for everyone (especially the pregnant and breastfeeding among us - super neat because postpartum hand pain is real!), so check with your doctor before applying a medication you found on the internet!
Best for: De Quervain’s, Carpal Tunnel
If the above at-home treatments are still not providing the relief you deserve, there are STILL some things you can try! All hope is not exhausted.
First, if you are able, try to adjust your use of your hands. If typing or gaming is causing pain, take a break, or use assisting devices, like special keyboards or hand massagers. Experiment with new ways of holding or position your hands. Move from a sitting desk to a standing one. Prop up your hands, or check out a more ergonomic keyboard. Sometimes little changes are the key to banishing hand pain!
Hand exercises can also be very helpful! One simple exercise for joint and nerve pain involves gently extending the hands and spreading the fingers, and pushing hands against a hard surface.
You may also try gently pulling back on your fingers while your arm is extended to stretch your poor overextended joints and tendons. You can also do what I do, which is make my husband give me constant hand massages to relieve pain (though I suggest you find your own significant other or masseuse, not actually my husband).
The Final Word on at-home treatments is this: there are many different approaches you can try, and chances are something will work for you. However, we deeply recommend checking with your doctor before starting any treatment plan!
Other Hand Pain Treatments
Best For: Carpal Tunnel, Trigger Finger, possibly Arthritis
If at-home treatments are no longer effective, there are some other options you and your medical professional can take.
One option is corticosteroid injections. These are injections of steroids given in the hand (or finger) to reduce inflammation. They are easily done in an outpatient setting, often just in a doctor’s office. These injections can provide instant pain relief, and then slowly work over a couple of weeks to reduce the swelling that is causing the hand pain issue. A person can receive steroid injections a few times over their life, so they are not recommended if other options have not been exhausted.
Steroid injections may not work for all kinds of hand pain, though they can be particularly helpful for carpal tunnel, trigger finger, and some kinds of arthritis. Generally, if the pain is caused by swelling and inflammation, steroids can provide some relief. As always, speak to your doctor to determine if you are a candidate for such treatment!
Best For: Trigger Finger, Carpal Tunnel
If steroid injections no longer provide relief, or you are not a candidate for them, another option may be hand surgery. Your doctor can go over the options for you, but many people benefit from hand surgery, and find it a more permanent pain solution than compression gloves or rest.
Hand surgery depends on the specific condition for which you are getting the surgery. Trigger Finger is commonly an outpatient procedure that involves a small incision in the palm to reduce inflammation and release the locked joint. Carpal Tunnel is a slightly more involved procedure where the carpal ligament is cut, so the pressure on the nerve is relieved.
Both of these procedures will offer immediate relief, though carpal tunnel surgery can take a few weeks (or months) to provide full relief of the numbness and tingling. The healing process also takes a bit longer - many people are advised not to use their hands (as best they can) for up to 6 weeks, so it can be a difficult surgery to plan around (though, well worth it for the pain relief it provides).
It is less common to explore surgery for arthritis pain, though it is not unheard of. Usually this involves replacing a joint (this is much more common in larger joints - like knees and hips), which is not often done in the hand. Hand surgery for arthritis pain is difficult, and not always successful, and the recovery period can be lengthy. For these reasons, it’s not often worth it to try to operate, especially since it can reduce the pain, but make it harder to use that particular joint.
Of course, your doctor will outline the best treatment option for you, tailored to your specific needs!
And that’s it! We hope that this breakdown helped guide you to better understand your hands, and the best ways to relieve uninvited hand pain. Remember: you absolutely deserve to live pain-free, and it’s our sincere goal to help you Get Back to the Original You.
Written by: Jess Krzyczkowski
Medically Reviewed by: Dr. Ben Frederick