Wrist pain is a common condition with various causes. The wrist joint plays a role in basic movements, from texting to writing. When pain occurs, it can interfere with day-to-day activities and even impact a person’s quality of life.

The wrist is not one joint. Instead, it comprises several small joints where the bones of the hand and forearm meet.

Pain may occur for many reasons, whether simple fatigue or an underlying issue. Impact injuries to the wrist and muscle strains are common causes, while squashing the nerves that pass through the wrist can also produce pain.

Here we will explore the common causes, symptoms, and treatment options for wrist pain.

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Carpel tunnel syndrome is a condition that develops when a ligament thickens and puts pressure on a nerve. This pressure can cause pain, numbness, and weakness in the hand.

People with obesity, diabetes, or arthritis are at an increased risk of developing carpal tunnel syndrome.

Repetitive work that involves lifting, typing, or using equipment that vibrates the hand can also cause carpal tunnel syndrome.

Osteoarthritis involves inflammation of the joints and causes the cartilage between the bones within joints to wear away.

The condition can affect a wide range of joints, including the wrist. Osteoarthritis of the wrist tends to occur most often in middle-aged or older people and those with a family history of the condition.

Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease where the body’s immune system breaks down healthy tissues.

The condition most commonly affects the wrists, hands, and knees. The breakdown of tissue can lead to painful warmth and swelling in affected areas, such as the wrists, and limit joint function.

Learn more about how rheumatoid arthritis affects the wrists here.

Doctors also refer to this condition as de Quervain’s tenosynovitis or tendinosis. In this condition, swelling of the tendons and tendon sheaths around the base of the thumb can lead to pain in the thumb, wrist, and hand.

The exact cause of de Quervain’s disease is unclear, but doctors often associate it with an injury to the area or overuse. Symptoms include a grating feeling inside the wrist, swelling, and weakness along the wrist, forearm, and thumb.

As the name suggests, repetitive strain injury occurs from repetitive tasks such as typing or knitting. Overworking the joint can cause it to swell, putting pressure on the surrounding nerves.

It can affect many joints in the body, including the wrist.

The triangular fibrocartilage complex is a structure in the wrist located towards a person’s pinky finger.

It acts as a cushion and support for the small bones. The cartilage can wear away over time or tear due to an impact injury.

Because of the location of the triangular fibrocartilage complex, a person will typically experience pain down the small finger side of the wrist should it sustain damage.

Wrist tendonitis typically occurs due to small tears to the tendons of the wrist. These tears result in localized inflammation, irritation, and pain.

The condition usually occurs due to sudden, sharp injuries to the tendons or wear due to repetitive movements.

Bursae are small fluid-filled sacs that help cushion joints. Inflammation of bursae is known as bursitis.

These can occur in many areas of the body, including the wrist. Symptoms include tenderness over the tendons of the wrist, redness in the region, and swelling.

This cause of wrist pain is due to fluid-filled soft tissue cysts that most commonly develop on the wrist at the base of the back of the hand.

Ganglion cysts may compress nerves in the wrist, causing localized pain. However, people often experience little to no pain from these cysts.

Overstretching ligaments in the wrist can cause them to sprain. This damage to the muscles will typically result in pain and swelling.

There are several ligaments in the wrist that a person can sprain.

Learn more about wrist sprains here.

Wrist pain symptoms can vary depending on the cause. Some people may have pain that they describe as achy or dull, while others may have sharp pain. The location of the pain can also vary.

In addition to pain, other symptoms may develop. Symptoms of an injury, such as a wrist sprain, can include swelling and bruising.

Numbness, tingling, and hand weakness might also occur when pain is due to carpal tunnel syndrome.

Some people may develop the following symptoms:

  • Stiffness: A person may feel this through their wrist and potentially in their fingers.
  • Trouble gripping objects: Wrist pain may make grasping or holding on to objects difficult or uncomfortable.
  • A clicking sound when moving the wrist: This can be more severe after periods of rest.

Depending on the cause, symptoms may be mild to start and worsen as time goes on.

At first, pain may only occur during certain activities. In time, as the condition worsens, the pain might occur even at rest. Numbness can also progress to the point where a person cannot feel cold or heat and may drop things.

When to contact a doctor about wrist pain

It’s important to contact a doctor if:

  • wrist pain is interfering with everyday activities
  • numbness or tingling is becoming worse, and there is little or no feeling in the fingers or hand
  • simple hand movements are no longer possible
  • weakness makes holding things difficult

Complications of wrist pain can include weakness and a decreased ability to carry out activities such as gripping objects and using a keyboard.

After a physical exam and symptom review, a doctor may also diagnose wrist pain and the underlying condition using:

  • Medical imaging scans: A doctor may order imaging scans, including X-ray, CT, and MRI scans.
  • Arthroscopy: This procedure involves a small cut on the wrist. A surgeon will then insert a small instrument with a tiny camera attached through the cut. This will produce images that allow medical professionals to assess and diagnose what is causing wrist pain.
  • Nerve conduction studies: These measure how fast nerve impulses travel through the forearm, wrist, and hand regions.

Typically, doctors will only order invasive diagnosis techniques after rest and recovery from an injury have been unsuccessful.

Treatment for wrist pain depends on the cause of the pain and its severity. Options include:

  • Home treatment: Often, simply resting the wrist as much as possible to allow it time to heal is effective. Doctors may also recommend pain-relieving medication and ice to reduce inflammation and pain.
  • Splints: In some cases, wearing a wrist splint can help. Splinting may prevent certain wrist movements that cause irritation. A splint might also reduce the squeezing of the nerve.
  • Exercises: Wrist exercises may help to manage wrist pain, depending on the type of pain. Certain exercises can stretch and lengthen muscles and tendons.
  • Additional treatment: Corticosteroid injections, which decrease inflammation and reduce pain, can be effective in treating wrist pain.
  • Surgery: The type of surgery a doctor may recommend will depend on the cause of the pain.

In some instances, doctors may recommend a person undertake physiotherapy as part of ongoing treatment.

Small lifestyle alterations may reduce a person’s chances of developing wrist pain. These include:

  • using proper posture when sitting at a workstation and keeping the wrists in a relaxed position
  • considering a wrist-friendly keyboard, if a person spends long hours at the keyboard
  • learning how to use hand tools properly, placing less stress on the hands and wrists
  • taking regular breaks from using a keyboard
  • using wrist guards to prevent injuries when participating in sports, such as skateboarding, snowboarding, and rollerblading

The wrist is a complex structure including multiple joints, ligaments, and nerves. Damage to any of these can lead to pain in the wrist.

Overuse, overexertion, impact injuries, and several health conditions can all cause damage in the wrist, and ultimately pain.

The severity, location, and treatment for these pains will vary depending on what is causing them. While damage to the wrist is not always avoidable, managing underlying health conditions such as arthritis, practicing proper form when gripping or lifting objects, and performing muscle strengthening exercises can reduce a person’s risk of a wrist injury.