The Signs, Symptoms and Treatment of Arthritic Fingers
A joint is the part of your body where two bones come together. Arthritis is a problem that causes damage to the normally smooth joint surfaces. These junctions have special surfaces to allow smooth movement between the adjoining bones. This smooth surface is cartilage, and when the cartilage is damaged, arthritis is the condition that results. When our fingers can’t bend and move like we expect, all of those activities become difficult.
There are three types of arthritis that commonly affect the fingers:
- Osteoarthritis: Osteoarthritis, also called wear-and-tear arthritis, is the most common type of finger arthritis. In people with osteoarthritis, the normal cartilage is steadily worn away, exposing bare bone at the joints. The most frequently affected joints in the hand are the knuckles of the mid-finger and fingertip (the PIP and DIP joints) and the joint at the base of the thumb.
- Rheumatoid Arthritis: Rheumatoid arthritis causes a different type of joint destruction. Rheumatoid arthritis is a systemic autoimmune condition that can cause a number of problems. Among these, rheumatoid arthritis can cause inflammation of the soft-tissue surrounding joints. The most commonly affected joints in the hand are the knuckles at the base of the fingers (the MCP joints).
- Gout: Gout is a condition that occurs when crystals develop within the joints of your body. These crystals form as a result of the body not properly metabolizing a substance called uric acid. When uric acid accumulates, these crystals can form in one or more joints. While the big toe is the most commonly affected part of the body, finger joints can also be involved.
Signs and Symptoms
Symptoms of finger arthritis include:
- Joint pain
- Loss of motion
Early treatments of finger arthritis are focused on managing the symptoms in an effort to avoid surgery. Treatment options include:
- Anti-Inflammatory Medications: These medications can help treat the pain of finger arthritis, and also help decrease inflammation and swelling around the joints. While you should always check with your doctor before starting any new medication, these are often prescribed for joint pains in the fingers.
- Joint Supplements: Joint supplements consist of glucosamine and chondroitin, two of the major building blocks of normal cartilage. These supplements are very safe to use, although the clinical data to support their use is weak. That said, many people can find them helpful.
- Cortisone Injections: Cortisone is a more powerful anti-inflammatory medication and can be useful in limited applications in the hand. While cortisone injections are generally not good to perform frequently, an occasional shot may help calm a flare of arthritis.
- Hand Therapy: Hand therapy, usually performed by an occupational therapist, is helpful to maintain motion and prevent stiffening of the joints.
- Ice and Heat Treatment: Joint stiffness and range of motion can be improved by ice and heat treatments. Most people with finger arthritis find warming the hands with a warm washcloth or under moderately hot water is most helpful at relieving the stiffness of arthritic fingers.
- Splints: Splinting helps to relax and rest the joints. Splinting should be done for limited periods of time to allow for relief without allowing the joint to stiffen.
If these treatments fail, then surgery may be necessary. In the fingers, several procedures may be done, including removing the bone spurs, fusing the joint, and replacing the joint. The most common surgery is a finger joint fusion. This procedure holds the joint in a fixed position to prevent any further motion at the affected joint. While the joint is then stiff forever, the pain is usually alleviated. Furthermore, during finger joint fusion surgery, your doctor can straighten any deformity and remove bone spurs.
Finger joint replacement can be a very effective procedure in some individuals. People who have an artificial finger joint can maintain mobility of the joint without the pain of arthritis. Furthermore, the same deformities and bone spurs can be addressed during this surgical procedure. In general, finger joint replacement is only considered in more sedentary or elderly individuals, as they are not designed for strenuous activity or heavy labor. The implants, which may be made of metal, plastic, ceramic, or a combination of materials, can wear out over time and need to be protected from too much activity.