Common Causes of Wrist Pain

Ouch! Why Does My Wrist Hurt?

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Wrist pain is an extremely common complaint and there are many common causes of this problem. It is important to make an accurate diagnosis of the cause of your symptoms so that appropriate treatment can be directed at the cause.

Common Causes

If you have wrist pain, some common causes include:

  • Wrist Tendonitis
    Tendonitis is a common problem that can cause wrist pain and swelling. Wrist tendonitis is due to inflammation of the tendon sheath. Treatment of wrist pain caused by tendonitis usually does not require surgery.
  • Wrist Sprains
    Wrist sprains are common injuries to the ligaments around the wrist joint. Sprains can cause problems by limiting the use of our hands.
  • Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
    Carpal tunnel syndrome is the condition that results from dysfunction of one of the nerves in the wrist. In carpal tunnel syndrome, the median nerve is compressed, or pinched off, as it passes through the wrist joint. 
  • Arthritis
    Arthritis is a problem that can cause wrist pain and difficulty performing normal activities. There are several causes of arthritis, and fortunately, there are a number of treatments for wrist arthritis.
  • Ganglion Cyst
    A ganglion cyst is a swelling that usually occurs over the back of the hand or wrist. These are benign, fluid-filled capsules. Ganglion cysts are not cancerous, will not spread, and while they may grow, they will not spread to other parts of your body.
  • Broken Wrist
    A wrist fracture is a common orthopedic injury. Patients who sustain a broken wrist may be treated in a cast, or they may need surgery for the fracture.
  • Carpal Boss​ 
    Most commonly seen as a bump on the back of the hand. It is created by a small area of osteoarthritis occurring at the junction of the long hand bones and the small wrist bones.

Wrist Sprains

A wrist sprain is the most common cause of pain after an injury such as a fall onto the hand. When a wrist sprain injury occurs, the ligaments of the wrist are stretched beyond their normal limits.

A ligament is tough, fibrous tissue that controls the motion around a joint. The ligaments around the wrist joint help to stabilize the position of the hand and allow controlled motions.

Wrist sprains are graded according to the severity of the injury:

  • Grade I: Mild injury, the ligaments are stretched, but no significant tearing has occurred.
  • Grade II: Moderate injury, the ligaments may be partially torn.
  • Grade III: Severe wrist sprain, the ligaments are completely torn, and there may be instability of the joint.

Wrist sprains are common injuries, especially in active people. Wrist sprains tend to occur after falls. In icy weather, wrist sprains are common as people fall to the sidewalk after slipping. Sporting activities are also common causes of wrist sprains. Sports in which wrist sprains commonly occur include football, basketball, skiing, snowboarding, rollerblading, and many other sports.

Some common symptoms of a wrist sprain include:

  • Pain with movement of the wrist
  • Swelling around the wrist joint
  • Bruising or discoloration of the skin
  • Burning or tingling sensations around the wrist

Should You Call the Doctor?

If you are unsure of the cause of your wrist pain, or if you do not know the specific treatment recommendations for your condition, you should seek medical attention.

Treatment of these conditions must be directed at the specific cause of your problem. Some signs that you should be seen by a doctor include:

  • Inability to carry objects or use the arm
  • Injury that causes deformity of the joint
  • Wrist pain that occurs at night or while resting
  • Wrist pain that persists beyond a few days
  • Inability to straighten or flex the joint
  • Swelling or significant bruising around the joint or forearm
  • Signs of an infection, including fever, redness, warmth
  • Any other unusual symptoms

Treatments

Treating wrist pain depends entirely on the cause of the problem. Therefore, it is of utmost importance that you understand the cause of your symptoms before embarking on a treatment program.

If you are unsure of your diagnosis, or how severe your condition is, you should seek medical advice before beginning any treatment.

Not all treatments listed here are appropriate for every condition, but may be helpful in your situation.

  • Rest and Activity Modification: The first treatment for many common conditions that cause wrist pain is to rest the joint and allow the acute inflammation to subside. It is important, however, to use caution when resting the joint because prolonged immobilization can cause a stiff joint. Adjusting your activities so as not to irritate the joint can help prevent worsening of wrist pain.
  • Ice Application: For the first 48 hours post-injury, ice the sprained wrist 20 minutes at a time every 3-4 hours. The ice pack can be a bag of frozen vegetables (peas or corn), allowing you to be able to re-use the bag. Another popular treatment method is to fill paper cups with water then freeze the cup. Use the frozen cube like an ice cream cone, peeling away paper as the ice melts. Do NOT ice a wrist sprain for more than 20 minutes at a time!! You will not be helping heal the sprained wrist any faster, and you can cause damage to the tissues! Learn how to ice an injury here...
  • Compression: Use compression when elevating the sprained wrist in early treatment. Using an Ace bandage, wrap the wrist from the base of the fingers all the way up to the top of the forearm, overlapping the elastic wrap by one-half of the width of the wrap. The wrap should be snug, but not cutting off circulation to the hand and wrist. So, if your fingers become cold, blue, or tingle, re-wrap!
  • Wrist Support: Support braces can help patients who have either a recent wrist sprain injury or those who tend to injure their wrists easily. These braces act as a gentle support to wrist movements. They will not prevent severe injuries but may help you perform simple activities while rehabilitating from a wrist sprain.
  • Anti-Inflammatory Medication: Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory pain medications, commonly referred to as NSAIDs, are some of the most commonly prescribed medications, especially for patients with wrist pain caused by problems such as arthritis and tendonitis.
  • Cortisone Injections: Cortisone is a powerful medication that treats inflammation—and inflammation is a common problem in patients with wrist pain. Discuss with your doctor the possible benefits of a cortisone injection for your wrist pain condition.
  • Arthroscopic Wrist Surgery: Some wrist conditions require a surgical procedure for diagnosis or treatment. Arthroscopic surgery is a treatment option available for some causes of wrist pain.

Preventing Wrist Injury

Some activities are such that participants are at significant risk for sustaining a wrist injury. Wearing protective splints in sports such as rollerblading, street hockey, and snowboarding can help prevent many sprained wrists. While skiing, use a pole that has a low-profile grip, and do not secure the poles in your wrists with tight straps.

People who have sustained a previous injury may have a higher risk of further injury, especially if they do not regain full mobility of strength of the joint. For that reason, it is important for active individuals, especially athletes, to ensure they regain full function of the joint before resuming competitive activities.

A Word From Verywell

Not every patient with wrist pain will find relief with the treatments above. However, some simple steps will be effective for the vast majority of people.

If you find your symptoms persist despite appropriate treatment, you may want to discuss with your doctor what the next steps might be. While surgery may be an option, most people choose this as a step only if they fail to find relief with these steps listed above.

Source:

Goldfarb CA, Puri SK, Carlson MG. "Diagnosis, Treatment, and Return to Play for Four Common Sports Injuries of the Hand and Wrist." J Am Acad Orthop Surg. 2016 Dec;24(12):853-862.

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