Osteoarthritis of the hand is a degenerative condition resulting in progressive wear of all the joints of the hand and fingers.
Osteoarthritis of the hand is a complex pathology also called arthrosis as opposed to arthritis, which produces similar symptoms but involves a chronic inflammatory process. The condition affects the joints of the metacarpal bones articulating with the proximal phalanges (knuckles) as well as each inter-phalangeal joint of the fingers and thumbs. In the elderly population osteoarthritis is the most common disease as the articular cartilage covering bone extremities of the joints has worn-out.
These degenerative changes of the cartilage increase the shock impacts to the joints producing over time bone erosion, pain, joint stiffness and swelling, leading to damage of the ligaments, finger misalignment or other deformities. The consequent weakness of the tendons causes the fingers to bend towards the little finger (ulnar deviation). When the pathology affects the distal joints of the fingers, small mucous cysts may develop at the lateral side of the distal inter-phalangeal joints. The accumulation of calcific spurs mostly in middle-aged women forms the so-called Heberden’s nodes. When located in the proximal inter-phalangeal joints they are named Bouchard’s nodes.
The severity of the disease is divided into three grades:
Grade 1: thickened nodules in the palmar aponeurosis, skin colour changes
Grade 2: formation of pretendinous and cords, limited finger extension
Grade 3: permanent contracture of the affected finger(s)
Hand osteoarthritis can be the consequence of previous injuries of the joint surface as well as joint dislocations that failed to heal completely. Alterations in the integrity of the cartilage and bone anatomy increase the pressure on the joints, which gradually deteriorate. Traumatic injury to the joint causes friction during movement and aggravates cartilage damage. In this case the pathology is named post-traumatic osteoarthritis.
There are a various risk factors leading to hand osteoarthritis; the main ones being:
Ageing (1 in 5 adults are affected)
Females are more frequently affected and at earlier age than males
Familiar/genetic predisposition (autoimmune diseases: rheumatoid arthritis, psoriatic arthritis, lupus erythematous)
The symptoms of hand osteoarthritis progress in parallel with the severity of the disease. The main symptoms are:
Early stage: pain with movement that eases off with activity
Advanced stage: chronic pain also without movement
Swelling of the joints of the hand, thumb and fingers
Fluid accumulation in the joint
Noise when moving the hand and fingers (crepitus)
Stiffness of the joint
Reduced range of motion
Widespread joint pathology in rheumatoid arthritis
The diagnosis of hand osteoarthritis begins with a medical history in which the patient provides the examiner the description of past injuries, definition of pain characteristics and familiar predisposition to osteoarthritis. The specialist performs the physical examination of the hand and fingers initially with passive actions and subsequently with active exercises to assess changes in the range of movement. Both extremities are compared in their anatomical and functional condition. X-rays are taken to visualise changes in bone and cartilage integrity. Occasionally blood tests are requested to exclude chronic medical conditions (rheumatoid arthritis, etc.)
In most patients hand osteoarthritis is treated conservatively unless the pathology is so advanced to severely compromise the anatomy and function of the hand or when pain has become unsustainable. Traditional conservative management includes:
Anti-inflammatory therapy with NSAIDs to reduce swelling, pain and facilitate the movement of the hand and finger joints
Cold or heat pads to provide comfort and reduce inflammation
Local steroid injection in more severe symptoms
Temporary immobilisation with a brace or splint to attenuate acute symptoms
Physical and occupational therapy to modify activities and reduce pain
Gentle exercise to strengthen hands and fingers and increase range of movement
Surgery is necessary in case of strong pain or with advanced deformity of the hand and finger joints that severely affect the function of the extremity and patients’ quality of life. Numerous methods are available depending on the aetiology causing osteoarthritis.
Reconstructive surgery is indicated in specific osteoarthritis of the base of the thumb in which the arthritic bone is replaced with a forearm tendon.
Arthroscopy of the hand is now possible thanks to the development of small equipment. This is an exploratory minimally invasive surgery to assess the in situ damage of bones, cartilage and ligaments. It can be used to repair small tears of soft tissue and remove cartilage fragments following injury.
Arthrodesis or joint fusion refers to the fusion of both articulating extremities with a metal plate. The bones will grow together and flexion/extension of the joint will no longer be possible. This surgery usually resolves pain but is functionally debilitating.
Arthroplasty or joint replacement prosthesis is recommended in case of chronic rheumatoid arthritis where both sides of the joint are compromised and fusion is not possible.
Whether treated conservatively or surgically, a number of exercises guided by a physiotherapist or hand-therapist are recommended to acquire flexibility, function and strength to the hand and fingers. Initially the patient is guided through gentle exercises while keeping the hand immersed in a bowl of soft warm wax. The use of ice packs onto the joints before and after motion can be beneficial. Post-surgery physiotherapy can begin at a time directed by the surgeon depending on the type of procedure. The initial care includes:
Immobilisation with a cast or splint for 10-14 days or longer for 4-6 weeks
Ice pads to reduce inflammation and swelling
Treatment with analgesics and NSAIDs
Hand osteoarthritis is a condition difficult to prevent. However, at the onset of the degenerative changes, the patient is advised to reduce stress to the joints to minimise future damage of the hand and fingers. It is recommended to modify those daily activities as follows:
Use careful movements when twisting, pulling or pushing objects
Avoid carrying heavy weights and bags
Practice regular exercise to maintain flexibility and strength to the hands and fingers
Wear a taping/splint during manual work or when returning to sport