Heberden's nodes are bony growths that develop on the finger joints, otherwise known as the interphalangeal joints. They most commonly develop on the joints nearest to the fingertips and can cause the fingers to appear crooked.

Heberden's nodes only develop in people who have osteoarthritis, or OA, which is a degenerative bone condition. These growths can cause pain, stiffness, and discomfort.

In this article, we look at the causes, symptoms, and risk factors for Heberden's nodes. We also discuss treatment and when to see a doctor.

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Heberden's nodes develop in people with osteoarthritis.
Image credit: Drahreg01, 2006

Each joint in the body has a layer of cartilage that helps protect the bones. OA causes this layer of cartilage to gradually degrade, allowing the bones in the joints to make direct contact with each other. Over time, the bones can become damaged from scraping together.

The body reacts to this damage by triggering the development of new bone formations, which are known as nodes.

Heberden's nodes are one type of bone formation that can develop on the fingers in severe cases of OA.

Heberden's nodes appear as bony growths around the joints of the finger and can cause the fingers to become deformed. For some people, they can occur without any other symptoms or only mild symptoms. But in others, symptoms can be prominent and may include:

  • pain
  • inflammation around the finger joints
  • stiffness in the affected area
  • loss of motion of the fingers

Heberden's nodes only develop in severe cases of OA, so the above symptoms can sometimes go undetected. This can be due to the severity of other symptoms of OA, or the person having become used to avoiding the use of their finger joints.

Heberden's nodes only develop in people with OA, but the exact cause of these bone growths is not known. Some risk factors for the condition include:

  • age
  • family history
  • related conditions, such as gout
  • obesity
  • injury to the joints

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Doctors recommend ibuprofen as a pain-relieving medication for Heberden's nodes.

Treatment for Heberden's nodes focuses on the underlying condition, which is OA. However, OA is a chronic condition that currently has no cure, so treating it will try to manage the symptoms and reduce pain.

As Heberden's nodes occur in more severe cases of OA, pain-relieving medications are often necessary to treat the condition. These are likely to include nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen.

Alongside medication, doctors typically recommend several lifestyle changes that can help to reduce symptoms. The most effective lifestyle change for treating symptoms of OA is physical exercise.

Exercising can work in several ways to improve symptoms. For example, resistance exercises can help to increase muscle strength, which reduces the pressure on joints. It can also promote bone flexibility and density.

Exercise can also help someone to lose weight, which may improve symptoms of OA in people who are overweight.

The best type of exercise will vary, depending on several factors, such as disease progression or age.

As Heberden's nodes occur in more severe cases of OA, a person should develop a structured exercise plan with the help of an occupational or physical therapist. Exercise needs to be engaged in regularly for someone to get the most benefit.

It is best to avoid exercises that put additional strain on joints, such as running or certain types of weight training. It is better to stick with activities where the joints are supported, such as swimming or cycling.

In rare cases, a person may need surgery if Heberden's nodes do not improve and cause significant discomfort. Surgery will usually involve removing the nodes and reconstructing the affected joints.

People who have Heberden's nodes have advanced OA and may already be in regular contact with a doctor. In some cases, the nodes may not be causing significant problems, and no additional treatment will be necessary.

However, it is safest to consult a doctor if any nodes have developed on the fingers. A doctor can help determine the best steps to take for treatment. If the nodes develop with symptoms, such as pain, or are impairing daily functioning, a person should consult a doctor immediately.