The Different Types of Hand Arthritis: How to Treat Arthritis in Fingers, Elbows, and Shoulders

Fact checked by Olga Sadouskaya, MD
Clinical Pharmacologist, Chief Medical Officer

Arthritis comes in many different types, each manifesting in a variety of symptoms. Pain, swelling, stiffness, and deformity are all symptoms of arthritis in the hand. Continue reading to find out what can be causing arthritis in fingers, thumbs, and elbows and what you can do to improve your symptoms.

Types of hand arthritis

Arthritis is a condition that can damage your joints and, in particular, your hands. Finding the right treatment depends on knowing what type of arthritis you have.

Rheumatoid arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an inflammatory joint disease caused when the body’s immune system attacks healthy tissue. RA develops when the immune system mistakenly assaults the joints, causing inflammation.

Swelling, soreness, and stiffness in the hands, wrists, shoulders, ankles, elbows, neck, and jaw might develop gradually or suddenly. In most cases of RA, more than one joint is affected. If you have it in your left knuckle, for example, you may also feel it in your right knuckle.

Other symptoms include a lack of energy, a warm sensation in the joints, and morning stiffness in the joint that can persist for hours.

Psoriatic arthritis

This kind of arthritis can cause a dual reaction. Skin inflammation, the underlying cause of psoriasis, usually appears first as a scaly rash.

Swelling in the fingers is a symptom, and arthritis can develop as a result. People between the ages of 30 and 50 are most at risk for developing psoriatic arthritis.

Fingernails that are discolored and pitted are another sign. One or two joints may be affected by psoriatic arthritis, although this is not usual.

 An older woman with arthritis in fingers and thumbs

Gout-induced arthritis

The buildup of uric acid crystals in the joints causes gout. There are two main causes of uric acid buildup: either excessive uric acid synthesis and subsequent renal failure or a diet excessive in purine-rich foods.

Symptoms of gout often appear quickly and can last anywhere from three to 10 days. It’s possible that flare-ups could intensify, and if the condition goes untreated for too long, arthritis will develop.

Tenderness, swelling, pain, redness, stiffness, and inflammation are all possible symptoms of gout.

Lupus

The autoimmune illness lupus can cause damage to the joints. Environmental and genetic factors can cause your immune system to go into overdrive and produce autoantibodies that attack healthy tissues and organs.

Women are more likely than men to be diagnosed with lupus, and the disease often appears between the ages of 15 and 44. A person with lupus may experience any number of symptoms.

Muscle and joint pain, rashes, thinning hair, anemia, and fever are just a few of the symptoms of this disease.

Osteoarthritis

In this group of joint conditions, osteoarthritis stands out as an exception. Osteoarthritis is a degenerative condition caused by gradual wear and tear on the joints rather than inflammation.

Since your dominant hand gets the most action, it is the most likely to develop signs of osteoarthritis. There is no inflammation or fever associated with this kind of arthritis.

The discomfort is comparable to that of inflammatory arthritis. However, the episodes often last only five to 15 minutes.

What causes arthritis in fingers and thumbs?

Arthritis of the thumb develops with age because of the natural breakdown of cartilage in the carpometacarpal joint, which connects the three bones at the base of the thumb.

Simple activities like turning doorknobs or opening jars can become challenging when thumb arthritis causes acute discomfort, swelling, and a loss of strength and range of motion.

Medication and splints are often used together in treatment. Surgery may be necessary for severe cases of arthritis in the thumb.

As people get older, they often get thumb arthritis. Thumb arthritis can also be caused by previous trauma or damage to the thumb joint.

Cartilage surrounds the ends of the bones of a healthy thumb joint, providing a cushion and allowing the bones to move easily against one another.

The smooth surface of the thumb’s bones is lost when the cartilage that covers them deteriorates and wears away due to arthritis. Joint injury and bone deterioration can happen from the bones rubbing against one another.

Joint injury can cause new bone tissue to develop along the edges of the old bone (bone spurs), which can lead to prominent arthritis bumps on fingers.

Is your shoulder pain caused by arthritis?

Pain in the shoulder region is often the initial symptom of arthritis in the shoulder. However, the form and timing of the pain can vary.

For example, some people may have severe pain in their shoulder joint, while others may feel it spreading down the side of their neck. As shoulder arthritis worsens, it can cause mobility restrictions.

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The first thing you should do if you’re experiencing shoulder arthritis pain, stiffness, or other symptoms that just won’t go away is consult your doctor. Symptoms of muscular weakness, pain, limited range of motion, and a grating sensation inside the joint upon movement will likely be evaluated.

After a physical examination for arthritis, an X-ray of your hand will likely follow so your health care provider can check out your skeletal system for any problems.

Furthermore, your doctor may choose to inject a local anesthetic into the joint where the pain is originating. An arthritis diagnosis is more likely if the pain is only temporarily relieved.

Arthritis or carpal tunnel: How to tell the difference

The signs of carpal tunnel and arthritis are quite similar. Wrist, hand, and finger pain are quite similar in the early phases of rheumatoid arthritis. Therefore, this is the most challenging time for diagnosis.

Both disorders often manifest as either a throbbing or dull pain in the joints that continues throughout the day.

Having one of these problems may also make you feel weak and vulnerable and/or keep you awake at night.

Carpal tunnel syndrome and arthritis are both painful conditions. For pain relief, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs work for both diseases.

Rheumatoid arthritis’s systemic effects develop gradually over time. Once that occurs, you can rule out carpal tunnel syndrome as the likely cause. Loss of appetite, fever, and exhaustion are all symptoms.

However, carpal tunnel syndrome symptoms continue to appear in the hand and wrist. Pain from carpal tunnel syndrome can sometimes go all the way up the arm to the elbow.

When diagnosing carpal tunnel syndrome, you might use so-called provocative self-tests, such as the Tinel, Phalen, and Durkan tests. Findings are typically not mistaken for arthritis.

Your doctor will provide you with a treatment plan that’s tailored to your specific condition, be it carpal tunnel syndrome, arthritis, or a different condition completely.

How to treat arthritis in hands and elbows

The primary goals of treatment for elbow arthritis are pain management and slowing the condition. Common treatments for elbow arthritis include the following.

Medication

Over-the-counter pain relievers can help in the early stages of arthritis in the elbow. Anti-inflammatory drugs, which reduce joint swelling and pain, fall under this category.

A man with a pill to treat his hand arthritis and elbow pain

Physical therapy

If you’re looking for more relief from the pain and stiffness of elbow arthritis, physical therapy can be helpful. Trained staff will guide you through a series of stretches and exercises designed to alleviate your elbow pain and restore your range of motion.

Activity modification

The development of osteoarthritis in the elbow might be triggered by excessive usage of the joint.

If you notice that a certain motion is particularly painful, try to avoid doing as much of it as possible. If your joint is already affected, repeating the offending motion might make things worse.

Arthritis exercises for hands, shoulders, and elbows

The best exercise plan should be tailored to each individual’s needs based on their diagnosis, severity of symptoms, and physical limitations.

Luckily, there are some basic exercises that may benefit most people with arthritis in the hands, shoulders, and elbows.

  • For hands: Make a fist by squeezing your thumb into your palm, then slowly open it again. Repeat this movement 10 times per hand using both thumbs and all four fingers; you can also wear an elastic band around your fingers as you open and close them to increase resistance.
  • For shoulders: Wall push-ups are gentle exercises that can be done with minimal pain. Stand in front of a wall and rest your palms flat against it while maintaining an upright posture. Slowly lean forward until you feel the stretch on your chest muscles, then slowly return to the starting position.
  • For elbows: Arm circles are great for improving mobility and flexibility in the elbow joint. Start by standing up straight with arms extended and palms facing outward. Slowly draw circles with your arthritis elbow, reversing directions after each circle is complete. Do 10 repetitions in one direction, then switch directions and repeat.

In conclusion

Hand arthritis can be treated through a variety of methods, depending on its type and severity.

If you are experiencing pain in your hands, it is important to see a doctor and discuss the best treatment plan for you.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to hand arthritis; treatments must be tailored to each individual. With the help of a doctor, you can find relief from hand arthritis and get back to doing the things you love.

January 25, 2023