Wrist pain can be caused by many types of problems, ranging from sprains to arthritis. An accurate diagnosis is crucial to determine the proper treatment.
Wrist pain is often caused by sprains or fractures from sudden injuries. But wrist pain also can result from long-term problems, such as repetitive stress, arthritis and carpal tunnel syndrome.
Because so many factors can lead to wrist pain, diagnosing the exact cause can be difficult. But an accurate diagnosis is essential for proper treatment and healing.
Wrist pain may vary, depending on the cause. For example, osteoarthritis pain often is described as being similar to a dull toothache. Carpal tunnel syndrome usually causes a pins-and-needles feeling. This tingling sensation usually occurs in the thumb and index and middle fingers, especially at night. The precise location of wrist pain also provides clues to what's behind the symptoms.
Not all wrist pain requires medical care. Minor sprains and strains usually respond to ice, rest and pain medications you can buy without a prescription. But if pain and swelling last longer than a few days or become worse, see your health care provider. Delayed diagnosis and treatment can lead to poor healing, reduced range of motion and long-term disability.
Damage to any of the parts of your wrist can cause pain and affect your ability to use your wrist and hand. The damage may result from:
Your wrist is made up of eight small bones (carpal bones) plus two long bones in your forearm — the radius and the ulna.
Wrist pain can happen to anyone — whether you're very sedentary, very active or somewhere in between. But the risk may be increased by:
It's impossible to prevent the unforeseen events that often cause wrist injuries, but these basic tips may offer some protection:
During the physical exam, your health care provider may:
Imaging tests may include:
If imaging test results do not provide enough information, you may need an arthroscopy. This procedure uses a pencil-sized instrument called an arthroscope is inserted into the wrist through a small incision in the skin. The instrument contains a light and a tiny camera, which projects images onto a television monitor. Arthroscopy is considered the gold standard for evaluating long-term wrist pain. In some cases, your doctor may repair wrist problems through the arthroscope.
Your health care provider might order an electromyogram if carpal tunnel syndrome is suspected. This test measures the tiny electrical discharges produced in the muscles. A needle-thin electrode is inserted into the muscle, and its electrical activity is recorded when the muscle is at rest and when it's contracted. Nerve conduction studies also are performed to check whether the electrical impulses are slowed in the region of the carpal tunnel.
Treatments for wrist problems vary greatly based on the type, location and severity of the injury, as well as on your age and overall health.
Nonprescription pain relievers, such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB, others) and acetaminophen (Tylenol, others), may help reduce wrist pain. Stronger pain relievers are available by prescription. Injections of corticosteroid medication also may be considered for some conditions.
A physical therapist can implement specific treatments and exercises for wrist injuries and tendon problems. If you need surgery, your physical therapist can help with rehabilitation after the operation. You may benefit from having an ergonomic evaluation that addresses workplace factors that may be contributing to wrist pain.
If you have a broken bone in your wrist, the pieces will need to be aligned so that the bone can heal properly. A cast or splint can help hold the bone fragments together while they heal.
If you have sprained or strained your wrist, you may need to wear a splint to protect the injured tendon or ligament while it heals. Splints are particularly helpful with overuse injuries caused by repetitive motions.
In some cases, surgery may be necessary. Examples include:
Wrist pain doesn't always require medical treatment. For a minor wrist injury, apply ice and wrap your wrist with an elastic bandage.
Although you may initially consult your family health care provider, you may receive a referral to an orthopedic surgeon, a doctor who specializes in joint disorders, called a rheumatologist, or a doctor specializing in sports medicine.
You may want to write a list that includes:
Your health care provider may ask some of the following questions: