What can cause pain in the hand or wrist?
In this article, we describe the possible causes of pain in the hand and when to see a doctor.
We also cover some home remedies for hand pain.
Causes of hand injuries can include knocks, blows, jamming a finger, and repetitive strain.
The hands and wrists contain many different bones, joints, and connective tissues, such as ligaments, tendons, nerves, and blood vessels.
Injuries to the hand can damage these structures and lead to pain, swelling, bruising, and other symptoms.
Common causes of hand injuries can include:
- knocks and blows
- landing on the hands during a fall
- jamming a finger
- bending the fingers or wrist too far backward
- repetitive strain, such as from long periods of typing, heavy lifting, or playing sports
Finger fractures and dislocations are common types of hand injury. The pain usually feels sudden and intense, and it may develop into throbbing or soreness over the course of several days.
Falls and severe blows can also fracture the wrist, causing sharp pain and swelling.
People with fractures may require a cast. Less frequently, a doctor may need to set the bones back into place.
Injuries to the muscles, ligaments, and tendons are called soft tissue injuries. People with soft tissue injuries do not usually require medical treatment, but ice and elevation can help relieve pain and swelling.
It is also important to rest or immobilize the hand while it recovers.
Mallet finger, or baseball finger, is another common hand injury. This injury occurs when a sudden blow, such as from a ball, tears or stretches the extensor tendon in the finger. It can also happen if a person jams or cuts their finger.
A typical sign of mallet finger is a drooping fingertip that will not straighten without help. The finger may also be bruised, swollen, and painful.
Splinting the injured finger can help with healing. In some cases, a person may need surgery or physical therapy.
Repetitive movements or overuse of the hands and wrists can cause the muscles, tendons, and nerves to become painful, sore, or tense.
Pain and tension from muscles in the arms and shoulders can also radiate down to the hands.
This type of pain typically results from carrying out very repetitive or high-intensity activities for long periods of time. Holding the hands in awkward positions for too long can also lead to overuse injuries.
Common causes include:
- typing or using a computer mouse
- using tools
- lifting heavy items
- playing, or training for, sports
Overuse injuries usually respond well to rest, hot or cold packs, and gentle stretching. Taking over-the-counter (OTC) medications such as acetaminophen and ibuprofen may also help reduce pain and swelling.
A doctor may also recommend physical therapy or making adjustments to a person's working and training habits to help prevent reinjury.
However, they can sometimes be painful and may affect a person's ability to use their hand or wrist.
Researchers do not yet understand what causes ganglion cysts, but they tend to be more common in younger people and females.
Ganglion cysts do not usually require treatment. If a person has pain or difficulties moving a joint, a doctor may recommend draining the cyst or removing it surgically.
Trigger finger can make it difficult to move the affected finger or thumb.
Stenosing tenosynovitis, or "trigger finger," occurs when the ring of connective tissue called the tendon sheath at the base of a thumb or finger becomes swollen.
This swelling can affect the movement of the tendon, making it difficult or painful to move the affected finger or thumb.
A person may also notice a popping sensation when trying to move the finger, or a feeling that the finger is catching on something.
Treatment options for trigger finger may include:
- resting the finger
- immobilizing it with a splint
- taking anti-inflammatory medications, such as ibuprofen
- having steroid injections
- seeking release of the tendon sheath when the above treatments fail
A doctor may also recommend surgery if other treatments are unsuccessful.
Scleroderma is a group of conditions that result in unusual growth of connective tissue under the skin or around internal organs.
All types of scleroderma can cause the skin of the fingers to thicken and tighten, which can make them difficult to move.
Systemic scleroderma can also narrow the blood vessels of the hand, which can lead to pain and tingling.
Scleroderma is a chronic condition with no cure. However, steroids, blood pressure medications, and immunosuppressants can help relieve symptoms and prevent the condition from progressing.
During a flare-up, blood flow to hands becomes severely reduced. This may cause the fingers to lighten or become blue, and they may feel numb or painful.
When the blood flow begins to return, the hands may appear red or purple. The length of these attacks can vary from less than 1 minute to several hours.
Other conditions, such as scleroderma, can cause Raynaud's phenomenon. However, for most people with Raynaud's, the cause is unknown.
There is no cure for Raynaud's. However, making lifestyle changes and taking medications can help prevent flare-ups and reduce their severity. Treating any underlying conditions can also help.
The most common type of arthritis is osteoarthritis, which occurs when the cartilage that protects a joint wears away over time. This wear and tear allows the bones in the joint to rub against each other, causing pain and stiffness.
Another common type of arthritis is rheumatoid arthritis, which occurs when a person's immune system mistakenly attacks the tissues in the joints, which can cause inflammation and pain. Over time, this inflammation can lead to permanent joint damage.
Arthritis can affect any joint in the body, including in the hands and wrists. Treatment depends on the type of arthritis, but it can include making lifestyle changes, taking medications, exercising, and seeking physical therapy or occupational therapy.
Carpal tunnel syndrome
Carpal tunnel syndrome occurs when the median nerve, which runs through the wrist, becomes compressed or squeezed.
Symptoms can start gradually and are often worse at night. They typically include pain, tingling, and numbness in the hand and arm.
Carpal tunnel syndrome can also cause weakness in the affected hand. Some people may experience a loss of proprioception, which is a sense of where the hand is in space.
This condition can get worse with time, so early diagnosis and treatment is important. Treatment options include:
- making lifestyle changes
- wearing a splint
- taking medications, including anti-inflammatory drugs and steroid injections
- seeking physical therapy
- having surgery
Osteoporosis is the gradual loss of bone mass, which causes the bones to become weak and brittle. This weakness increases a person's risk of fracturing or breaking bones, particularly in the wrists and hips.
Osteoporosis tends to develop slowly and is more common in females and older people.
Treatment for osteoporosis typically involves:
- exercising to improve bone health, muscle strength, and mobility
- taking medications to increase bone strength
- making lifestyle changes to reduce the risk of falls and fractures
- making dietary changes, such as taking calcium or vitamin D supplements to improve bone health
When to see a doctor
A person should see a doctor if their hand pain does not get better with home treatment.
A person should see a doctor for severe, persistent, or reoccurring pain in the hands or wrists.
See a doctor for hand pain that:
- does not get better with home treatment
- gets steadily worse
- does not respond to treatment that a doctor recommends
- may be due to a fall or other injury
- occurs along with other symptoms, such as arm pain, a fever, or exhaustion
Go to the emergency room for:
- intense, sudden, unbearable hand pain
- a suspected broken wrist or arm
- a visible injury to the hand that causes very intense pain
Hand pain sometimes gets better with gentle stretching exercises.
To ease pain in the hands or wrists, a person can:
- Rotate the wrists counter-clockwise and then clockwise. Repeat each movement 10 times.
- Open the hands as widely as possible, spread the fingers apart, then close the hands into a tight fist. Repeat 10 times.
- Use one hand to gently extend the fingers of the other hand back toward the chest for a gentle wrist stretch. Repeat five to 10 times.
A doctor or physical therapist may be able to recommend additional hand and wrist stretches.
RICE therapy can help with a range of minor injuries, including hand and wrist pain. RICE stands for rest, ice, compression, and elevation:
- Rest. Avoid using the affected hand as much as possible.
- Ice. Apply an ice or cold pack to the injured hand for 20 minutes several times per day.
- Compression. Wrap the affected area in a soft bandage, splint, or cast.
- Elevation. Keep the affected hand raised, such as by using a sling, above heart level.
Other home remedies for hand and wrist pain include:
- Massage. Try massaging the painful area and surrounding muscles. Sometimes, massaging the arms or shoulders can help with hand pain.
- Heat. Some pain responds well to heat. Consider alternating between heat and cold packs, 20 minutes on and 20 minutes off for each.
- OTC medications. Taking nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen can help with pain and inflammation from a wide variety of conditions.
There are many possible causes of hand pain. They range from injuries and overuse to degenerative conditions such as arthritis.
Home remedies for hand pain include gently stretching, trying RICE therapy, and taking OTC medications.
A person should see a doctor for severe, persistent, or reoccurring pain in the hands or wrists.