Rheumatoid Arthritis in the Hands Symptoms and Causes

Rheumatoid arthritis in the hands is a chronic autoimmune disease that causes inflammation of the joints and the tendons of the fingers, hand, and wrist. Autoimmune diseases occur when your body is attacked by its own immune system. Inflammation from rheumatoid arthritis can become so severe that the joints of your fingers and wrists are deformed, making it difficult to move. Other joints such as knee can also be affected. Additionally, lumps, known as rheumatoid nodules, may form on your hands, wrists, arms and legs

Symptoms of Rheumatoid Arthritis in the Hands

The disease often causes inflammation symmetrically in your body, meaning the same joints are affected on both sides. For example, if you have rheumatoid arthritis in one hand, it will most likely affect the other hand, too. Each individual may experience symptoms differently. You may experience some or all of these common symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis in the hands:

  • Pain
  • Stiffness  
  • Swelling over the joints
  • Decreased movement
  • Pain that is worse with movement of the joints
  • Difficulty performing daily activities such as tying shoes, opening jars or buttoning shirts
  • Decreased ability to grasp or pinch
  • Bumps may develop over the small joints, forearm and elbow
  • Soft lump on the back of the hand that moves as the fingers straighten
  • Formation of a sharp, obstructive bend in the fingers (angulation) or collapse of fingers
  • Sudden inability to straighten or bend a finger because of a tendon rupture
  • The  middle joint of a finger becomes bent and deformed
  • The end of the finger is bent and the middle joint over extends (swan-neck deformity)
  • Prominent bones in the wrist

If a person has four or more of the following symptoms they may be diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis in the hands:

  • Morning stiffness that lasts longer than one hour for at least six weeks
  • Three or more joints that are inflamed for at least six weeks
  • Presence of arthritis in the hand, wrist or finger joints for at least six weeks
  • Blood tests that reveal rheumatoid factors
  • X-rays that show characteristic changes in the joints

The symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis in the hands may resemble other medical conditions, so it is important to consult your doctor about your symptoms. The experienced orthopaedic experts at North Shore-LIJ Orthopaedic Institute's Hand and Wrist Services in New York treat rheumatoid arthritis in the hands and wrists as well as a broad range of conditions affecting those areas.

Causes of Rheumatoid Arthritis in the Hands

The exact cause of rheumatoid arthritis in the hands is not known. Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disorder, which means the body's immune system attacks its own tissues. The body's response to the attack causes inflammation in and around the joints which may eventually destroy the joints and surrounding structures such as tendons. Rheumatoid arthritis also may have devastating effects on other organs such as the heart and lungs.

Risk factors for rheumatoid arthritis include:

  • Family history of rheumatoid arthritis
  • Women are at greater risk than men. Seventy percent are women versus 30 percent men.
  • Rheumatoid arthritis occurs more often between the ages of 30 and 50.
  • Two-thirds of people with rheumatoid arthritis have hand and wrist problems.

Treatments for rheumatoid arthritis of the hands range from nonsurgical treatments like anti-inflammatory and other disease modifying drugs,  hand therapy, and lifestyle changes to a variety of surgical procedures that reduce pain and restore functionality to the affected areas.

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