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Osteoarthritis of the wrist: symptoms, diagnosis and treatment

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

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

This article takes a closer look at osteoarthritis of the wrist, including its symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment.

Osteoarthritis occurs when the cartilage wears down. 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 the wrist bones wears down, the bones can rub together, creating friction and swelling. A person may also feel pain because the exposed bone has nerve endings. Eventually, the wrist joint may change shape, causing more pain and reducing the range of motion of the wrist and hand.

wrist anatomy

The wrist connects the hand to the forearm and includes several bones. The radius and the ulna are the bones of the forearm. 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 articular surface of each bone.

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

Symptoms of wrist osteoarthritis can include:

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

Osteoarthritis of the wrist can cause a variety of complications, including:

  • Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (CTS): Osteoarthritis of the wrist can sometimes lead to SCC. It happens when swelling in the wrist joint or tendons compresses a nerve that leads to the hand. This can lead to numbness, weakness, tingling and pain which may worsen at night. A person should speak with a doctor if they regularly experience these symptoms.
  • Structural changes: Osteoarthritis in the joint between the bones of the forearm can damage the tendons that straighten the fingers. This can reduce the range of motion of the hand and cause deformity of the fingers.
  • Difficulties with daily activities: People with wrist osteoarthritis may be unable to perform certain activities, such as opening jars and pouring a heavy kettle. A physical therapist or occupational therapist may be able to suggest ways to make everyday tasks easier.

To diagnose osteoarthritis of the wrist, 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 osteoarthritis does not cause blood abnormalities, a doctor can order a blood test to help rule out other causes, such as rheumatoid arthritis.

If a doctor suspects a wrist infection, they may order an arthrocentesis, also known as a synovial fluid test. 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 osteoarthritis, a person can try the following management techniques to lessen symptoms and prevent the progression of osteoarthritis:


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 can help relieve symptoms of osteoarthritis.

These exercises may include:

  • range of motion exercises
  • strengthening exercises
  • Aerobic exercise

Heat or cold therapy

Heat and cold therapy offers different benefits for people with wrist osteoarthritis. 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 blood vessels, which helps relieve wrist stiffness.

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 splints or straps

Different types of wrist supports can help in different ways. Rest splints hold the hand and wrist still when a person is resting. Work splints help keep the hand and wrist in the correct position when a person uses them.

It is best to seek the advice of a medical professional before purchasing orthotics or wrist straps to ensure they are suitable.

Learn more about home remedies for arthritis.

Doctors may recommend the following treatments in addition to the home remedies above:


Doctors can recommend various medications to relieve the symptoms of wrist osteoarthritis. Options include:

  • Analgesics: Pain relievers such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen can relieve pain and inflammation associated with wrist osteoarthritis.
  • Topical Pain Relief: A person can apply nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory creams and gels (NSAIDs) directly to the skin of the wrist. Capsaicin creams use a compound found naturally in cayenne pepper to relieve pain.
  • Corticosteroids: If over-the-counter or prescription pain relievers are ineffective, a doctor may prescribe steroid injections. These injections, which healthcare professionals administer 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 The most common types are:

  • Carpectomy of the proximal row: Surgeons remove three carpal bones near the forearm to relieve pain and maintain range of motion in the wrist.
  • Fusion or arthrodesis: Surgeons remove damaged cartilage and tie the wrist bones together to ensure they heal as one strong bone. This procedure relieves pain but reduces range of motion.
  • Wrist Replacement: Surgeons remove damaged bone and cartilage and replace them with plastic or metal joints. Doctors are less likely to recommend this surgery than those above.

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

People can ease their symptoms and slow the progression of the disease by following the advice of healthcare professionals and taking their medications regularly. If a person with wrist osteoarthritis does not receive treatment, the pain can become debilitating.

Wrist osteoarthritis is a degenerative condition resulting from aging and overuse. This can lead to pain, stiffness, and limited range of motion.

Possible complications include CTS and structural changes to the hand. Doctors can diagnose wrist osteoarthritis through a physical exam and x-rays.

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