What Causes Joint Pain in Hands and Feet? Doctors Explain

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

Joints are a point of connection between two or more bones. They are surrounded by cartilage, which helps them move smoothly and prevents friction between the bones. They also hold the entire skeleton together and support our daily movements.

There are 306 joints in the human body; the hands and feet account for 20 and 30 of them, respectively. Our hands and feet are undoubtedly among the most important parts of our body. They help with just about everything, from movement to lifting and even making a livelihood. Because of the frequency of use of both body parts, there is always a possibility for pain and injury.

Joint pain — also known as arthralgia — happens when the tissues, cartilage, or muscles around joints become inflamed and irritated. When this happens, the joints can get achy, painful, or stiff. Joint pain can occur in most parts of the body, including the hips, knees, elbows, feet, and hands.

A woman massaging her wrist to improve joint pain in the hand

One in every four people experiences chronic joint pain. Although, the pain varies from person to person. It can range from mild discomfort to severe pain that prevents you from doing daily activities like walking or working. Sometimes, joint pain in the hands and feet can signal an underlying health condition.

Common causes of joint pain in hands

Joint pain in the hands or feet can be a response to bruising or irritation. While this is often caused by an injury or overuse of the joint, other factors can also be at play. Here are some of the most common causes of joint pain in the hands:

  • Heavy lifting: Heavy lifting over time can cause irritation and inflammation of the ligaments that support your hand joints. This irritation can lead to pain, stiffness, and swelling in your joints.
  • Repetitive motion injuries: Repetitive motion injuries are caused by repeated movements like typing on a keyboard or using tools with your hands regularly. These repetitive motions can cause inflammation and irritation of the joints in your hands, leading to pain and stiffness.
  • Trauma: Injuries to the hand, such as fractures or sprains, can lead to inflammation or irritation at the site of injury.
  • Fibromyalgia: This disorder causes widespread muscle pain throughout the body. The symptoms also trigger hand and finger joint pain.
  • Rheumatoid arthritis: This is an autoimmune disease that affects the joints. It can cause inflammation or erosions in the joints of the hands, making them painful to move or use during everyday tasks.
  • Osteoarthritis: This is another degenerative joint condition caused by wear and tear on the cartilage cushions between bones within your body. It also causes joint pain in the hands.
  • Infection: Infections such as septic arthritis can cause severe joint pain in the hands. Septic arthritis is a bacterial infection that causes inflammation and pain in your joints. It’s most common in people with diabetes or other conditions that reduce the body’s ability to fight infection.
  • Side effects of drugs: Some drugs can cause temporary joint pain in the hands. Examples include cladribine, paclitaxel (which treats cancer), and fluoroquinolones (antibiotics).

What can be causing sharp joint pain in your thumb?

The thumb is one of the most important joints in your hand. It allows us to grasp, hold, and manipulate objects. If you’re experiencing sharp joint pain in your thumb, it may be because of the following:

  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Carpal tunnel syndrome
  • Overuse
  • Injury (sprain or fracture)

Joint pain in knees and feet when walking

The knee joint provides stability for weight-bearing activities such as walking, running, and squatting. The knees are also involved when we bend our legs at the hips and flex our feet at the ankles. When pain occurs in this area, it can be due to many reasons, including injuries or diseases of the muscles, tendons, ligaments, or cartilage of the knee joint.

Many people who experience joint pain say that they feel it in their knees and feet while they are walking. It presents as a sharp knee pain that comes and goes suddenly. This can be very frustrating, especially if you are a runner or athlete.

According to experts, the main cause of joint pain in the knees and feet when walking is rheumatoid arthritis.

The immune system normally protects the body from infection by producing antibodies that attack bacteria and viruses.

In rheumatoid arthritis, these antibodies mistakenly attack healthy tissue in the body, leading to inflammation and joint damage. It mainly affects the hands, feet, and wrists but can also affect other parts of your body, such as the neck, spine, hips, and knees.

Aside from rheumatoid arthritis, other common reasons you may experience joint pain in your knees and feet when walking include:

  • Injury to your kneecap
  • Osteoarthritis in the joint
  • Osteoporosis or muscle weakness
A woman walking on a pebbly beach with joint pain in feet

Why do you have joint pain in your big toe?

The joint in the big toe is a synovial hinge joint that connects the big toe to the rest of your foot. Pain in your toe joint affects your entire foot and can be quite uncomfortable. It is caused by many different things. The most common cause is arthritis, which is the breakdown and wearing away of the cartilage that cushions and protects the ends of the bones. Other possible causes include the following:

  • Injury to the joint in the big toe: This includes stubbing your toe, something falling on your toe, stepping on sharp objects, etc.
  • Bunions: These are enlargements and distortions of the first joint of the big toe. They cause the joint to protrude from its normal position at the end of the toe, forming a bump that can be painful.
  • Gout: This is caused by a buildup of uric acid in the joint and causes severe pain, swelling, and redness. The big toe is the most commonly affected joint.
  • Turf toe: This is a big toe joint sprain that commonly occurs in contact sports. The most common symptoms are pain and tenderness at the base of the big toe joint.

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How to relieve joint pain in your hands and feet

If you have joint pain in your hands and feet, it might disrupt your regular routine. You may have trouble gripping or grasping objects or even opening your hand. You may also have difficulty walking or climbing stairs.

Your first treatment option should be pain relief medications. Over-the-counter pain relievers such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen can help ease joint pain.

However, if your joint pain is caused by arthritis, your doctor may prescribe arthritis medication to help lessen the inflammation and relieve pain.

The following self-care measures can also help relieve joint pain in your hands and feet:

  • Apply heat or cold packs to the affected area.
  • Use a brace to stabilize the joint if it’s painful when moving it.
  • Avoid strenuous activity that causes pain and swelling in the joint.
  • Take gentle walks daily to exercise the joint (with arm supports if needed) but avoid running until you’re more comfortable with the movement.
  • Wear supportive shoes and use splints if needed.

When to see a doctor about your joint pain

Joint pain in the hands and feet has different causes and can be managed differently. Some problems, such as sprains and tears to the joint, can be managed with over-the-counter medication and rest. Others, such as gout or rheumatoid arthritis, require more aggressive medical treatment.

If you’re having persistent pain in your hands and feet, it is time to talk to your doctor — sooner rather than later. The following symptoms may indicate a serious problem:

  • Joint swelling or redness
  • Tenderness when the joint is moved
  • Distinctive joint noise, such as crackling or popping sounds (crepitus)
  • Severe pain in your joints that does not go away after resting for 30 minutes
  • Fever and chills

If you experience one or more of these symptoms, and it doesn’t resolve after a few days, it is time to see a doctor.

In conclusion

Joint pain in your hands and feet can stem from multiple sources. It’s important to keep a close eye on your extremities to catch pain early before it becomes debilitating. One of the best ways to prevent pain from attacking your joints is to exercise regularly. This helps maintain healthy bones and keeps underlying conditions like arthritis at bay. You should also try to eat foods rich in nutrients and not overly exert yourself.

Finally, if you’re experiencing joint pain, it’s important that you see your doctor right away. Your doctor can assess the cause of your symptoms and recommend treatment options if necessary.

January 10, 2023