Aching, stiff fingers and wrists can be a sign of osteoarthritis in the hands. This type of arthritis occurs when the smooth, slippery cartilage that normally provides a cushion between the small bones of the hand has deteriorated. Most adults over the age of 55 have signs of hand osteoarthritis that can be seen on X-rays, even though not all are symptomatic.1
Osteoarthritis can affect just one joint, such as the joint at the base of the thumb, or it can affect several joints of the hand at the same time. When it occurs in the fingers, bony cysts may grow, making the knuckles look bigger and making it more difficult to get rings on and off.
Which Hand Joints Are Most Affected By Osteoarthritis?
Any joint in the hand can develop osteoarthritis, but the joints most often affected include:
- The proximal interphalangeal (PIP) joints, or middle knuckles of the fingers
- The distal interphalangeal (DIP) joints, or the end-most joint of the fingers and thumb
- The basilar joint (sometimes called the first carpometacarpal joint) at the base of the thumb
- Certain joints of the wrist that connect the wrist’s eight carpal bones with each other and the bones of the forearm (the radius and ulna)
The metacarpophalangeal (MCP) joints, or large knuckles of the hand, are less likely to be affected by osteoarthritis.
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Does It Matter If You Are Right-Handed or Left-Handed?
A 2016 study2 of more than 1,000 people found that people developed arthritis in their right and left hands at similar rates regardless of whether they were right-handed or left-handed. However, people were more likely to report pain or difficulty completing tasks when osteoarthritis affected a dominant hand.
How Does Osteoarthritis Affect Hand Function?
People who have osteoarthritis in the thumb, index finger, and/or middle finger tend to report more problems than people who have osteoarthritis in only the ring finger or pinky.3 This is probably because the thumb, index finger, and middle finger are essential for pinching small objects (for example, picking up a quarter) and gripping objects.
One study4 of 387 men and women found that:
- Osteoarthritis in the thumb and middle finger were associated with weaker grip strength
- Osteoarthritis in the thumb and index finger were associated with weaker pinch strength
In addition, research suggests osteoarthritis in the wrist is a risk factor for carpal tunnel syndrome.4