When RA Affects Your Hands and Fingers

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) can affect any joint in your body, including those in your hands and fingers. You may have:

  • Hand pain, finger pain, swelling, and stiffness
  • Hand joints and finger joints that are warm and tender to the touch
  • The same joints affected on both sides of your body (both wrists, for instance)
  • Misshapen finger joints
  • Carpal tunnel symptoms such as numbness and tingling of the hands
  • Fatigue
  • Pain and stiffness that last for more than an hour when you wake up

Causes

Scientists don’t know what causes RA precisely. Most experts feel that a genetically predisposed person is exposed to a triggering event ( like an infection) that starts the chronic inflammation.

Hormones may also play a role. For instance, RA is more common in women than in men. It tends to improve with pregnancy. But it may get worse after the baby is born.

What's the Treatment?

Your doctor will make a plan based on your needs, including:

There are different types of drugs for RA. You would take some of them for pain and others to slow or stop the disease.

How can I ease hand and finger joint pain?

Regular exercise is very important to make your hands and fingers more flexible. You also need to rest painful joints. It helps to use hand or finger splints to ease pressure if your RA flares up.

To exercise your hands and fingers, you can use a soft foam ball like a Nerf ball (not a hard tennis ball). Squeeze it and then relax your hand muscles.

Ask an occupational therapist about gadgets and devices that may help make everyday activities easier, at home or on the job. For instance:

  • Use hook and loop fasteners to replace buttons on clothing.
  • Add accessories to doorknobs for easier turning.
  • Use lamp switches that require just a touch to the lamp base rather than twisting a small knob switch.
  • Try a long-handled shoehorn to put on your shoes so you don’t have to bend over and stretch your hands.
  • Use lightweight household utensils, pots, pans, cups, and dishes.
  • Put foam padding around your pen or pencil. These are available at most office supply stores.

Continued

Can moist heat or ice help RA pain?

Both of these simple methods can ease RA pain and stiffness.

Use a warm, moist compress (or towel or heating pad) on your fingers and hands for 15 minutes before you exercise.

To reduce swelling, use ice packs. Put an ice pack on the painful joint for 10 to 15 minutes at a time.

You may want to switch between moist heat and ice packs. Experiment to find out what works best for you, and then make it part of your routine before and after exercise.

What is a swan-neck deformity?

This happens when the base of the finger and the outermost joint bend, while the middle joint straightens. Over time, this imbalance of the finger joints can result in the crooked “swan-neck” position. Rheumatoid arthritis can cause it.

A swan-neck deformity can make it almost impossible to bend the affected finger normally. It can make it hard to button shirts, grip a glass, or pinch with the fingers.

Treatment may include:

  • Finger splints or ring splints
  • Surgery to realign the joints or fuse the joints so they work better

What is a boutonniere deformity?

Boutonniere deformity, also called buttonhole deformity, can happen due to rheumatoid arthritis.

The middle finger joint will bend toward the palm while the outer finger joint may bend opposite the palm. It may be the result of chronic inflammation of the finger's middle joint.

Treatment may include splinting to keep the middle joint extended. Some cases need surgery.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by David Zelman, MD on February 19, 2016

Sources

SOURCES:

National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases: "Living with Arthritis." 

National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases: "Rheumatoid Arthritis."

National Institutes of Health: "X-Plain Rheumatoid Arthritis."

Arthritis Foundation: "Rheumatoid Arthritis Resources."

Arthritis Today: "How is Rheumatoid Diagnosed?"

American College of Rheumatology: "Rheumatoid Arthritis."

McIlwain, H. and Bruce, D. Pain Free Arthritis, Holt, 2003.

American Society for Surgery of the Hand: "Rheumatoid Arthritis of the Hand."

The Merck Manuals: "Deformities."

EMedicine: "Swan-Neck Deformity."

News release, FDA.

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