Osteoarthritis (OA) is a degenerative joint disease that can cause pain, stiffness, and limited range of motion. OA can affect any joint, including the wrist.

The symptoms of wrist OA include pain, swelling, and a reduced range of motion in the wrist and hand. Wrist OA can lead to structural changes in the hand and limit a person’s ability to perform daily tasks.

This article looks at wrist OA in more detail, including its symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment.

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OA happens when cartilage wears away. Cartilage is a smooth, flexible tissue that cushions and protects the ends of bones, allowing them to glide smoothly over each other.

When the cartilage at the ends of wrist bones wears away, the bones may rub together, creating friction and swelling. A person may also experience pain because the exposed bone has nerve endings. Eventually, the wrist joint may change shape, causing more pain and reducing the range of motion in the wrist and hand.

Anatomy of the wrist

The wrist connects the hand to the forearm and comprises several bones. The radius and ulna are the forearm bones. There are eight small carpal bones at the base of the hand, arranged in two rows of four. In a healthy wrist, slippery cartilage covers the joint surface of each bone.

In wrist OA, the cartilage wears away, causing the bones to rub against each other. Injuries such as a broken wrist can accelerate cartilage loss and OA symptoms.

The symptoms of wrist OA can include:

  • pain or tenderness
  • stiffness
  • swelling
  • limited range of motion
  • discoloration or warmth
  • a change in grip strength or hand function
  • joint noise, called “crepitus,” when moving the wrist
  • locking or catching sensations in the wrist joint
  • difficulty using the hands

Wrist OA can cause various complications, including:

  • Carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS): Wrist OA can sometimes lead to CTS. This happens when swelling in the wrist joint or tendons squeezes a nerve that leads to the hand. It can result in numbness, weakness, pins and needles, and pain that may worsen at night. A person should talk with a doctor if they experience these symptoms regularly.
  • Structural changes: OA in the joint between the forearm bones may damage the tendons that straighten the fingers. This may decrease the range of movement in the hand and cause deformity in the fingers.
  • Difficulties with daily activities: People with wrist OA may be unable to perform certain activities, such as opening jars and pouring from a heavy kettle. A physical therapist or occupational therapist may be able to suggest ways to make daily tasks easier.

To diagnose wrist OA, a doctor will first perform a physical exam and take a person’s medical history.

They may also order X-rays to help identify structural changes in the wrist and hand and to rule out other causes.

Although OA does not lead to blood abnormalities, a doctor may order a blood test to help rule out other causes, such as rheumatoid arthritis.

If a doctor suspects an infection in the wrist, they may order an arthrocentesis, also known as synovial fluid analysis. This procedure involves taking a small sample of fluid from the synovium — the lining of the joint — for analysis.

Although there is no cure for OA, a person can try the following management techniques to alleviate the symptoms and prevent OA from progressing:


Physical therapy can help a person maintain range of motion and keep their wrist as flexible as possible. A physical therapist can teach specific exercises that may help relieve the symptoms of OA.

These exercises may include:

  • range-of-movement exercises
  • strengthening exercises
  • aerobic exercise

Heat or cold therapy

Heat and cold therapy provide different benefits to people with wrist OA. Some people find that applying heat to painful joints helps relieve pain. Heat therapy, such as a paraffin wax bath, increases blood flow by dilating the blood vessels, helping ease stiffness in the wrist.

Cold therapy constricts blood vessels and can help reduce swelling and inflammation. A person can wrap an ice pack in a cloth or towel and apply it to the affected area.

Wrist braces or straps

Different types of wrist supports can help in different ways. Resting splints keep the hand and wrist still when a person is resting. Working splints help keep the hand and wrist in the right position when a person is using them.

It is best to ask the advice of a healthcare professional before buying wrist braces or straps to make sure that they are suitable.

Learn about more home remedies for arthritis.

Doctors may recommend the following treatments alongside the above home remedies:


Doctors may recommend various medications to relieve the symptoms of wrist OA. The options include:

  • Analgesics: Pain relief medication such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen can relieve the pain and inflammation associated with wrist OA.
  • Topical pain relief: A person can apply nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) creams and gels directly to the skin of the wrist. Capsaicin creams use a compound that occurs naturally in cayenne pepper to alleviate pain.
  • Corticosteroids: If over-the-counter or prescription pain relievers are ineffective, a doctor may prescribe steroid injections. These injections, which healthcare professionals deliver directly into the joint, can relieve symptoms for several months.


If nonsurgical options are ineffective, doctors may recommend surgery. According to a 2022 article, the most common types are:

  • Proximal row carpectomy: Surgeons remove three carpal bones close to the forearm to ease pain and maintain the range of motion in the wrist.
  • Fusion or arthrodesis: Surgeons remove damaged cartilage and attach the wrist bones to ensure that they heal as one solid bone. This procedure relieves pain but reduces the range of motion.
  • Wrist replacement: Surgeons remove damaged bones and cartilage and replace them with plastic or metal joints. Doctors are less likely to recommend this surgical procedure than those above.

Wrist OA is a chronic condition that causes pain and stiffness in the wrist. It can also affect mobility and make daily tasks more difficult.

People can alleviate their symptoms and slow the progression of the disease by following the advice of healthcare professionals and taking their medication consistently. If a person with wrist OA does not receive treatment for it, the pain could become debilitating.

Wrist OA is a degenerative condition resulting from aging and overuse. It can lead to pain, stiffness, and a limited range of movement.

Possible complications include CTS and structural changes in the hand. Doctors can diagnose wrist OA through a physical exam and X-rays.

There is no cure for OA, but treatments are available to help ease the symptoms. Early diagnosis and treatment can help prevent further joint damage.