Most are familiar with the term “arthritis,” but many of us do not know that there is more than one form of this condition, including rheumatoid arthritis. Generally, arthritis is meant to describe an inflamed joint (as that is what the word arthritis actually means), but there are a few different ways this can happen.
For example, there is osteoarthritis, there is arthritis that develops following an injury or trauma, and there is arthritis that can develop after an infection, due to gout, and from the skin condition known as psoriasis. There is also rheumatoid arthritis.
Though this does cause inflamed joints, rheumatoid arthritis is a systemic condition, meaning it can appear anywhere in the body – and even spread over time. In any sort of arthritis, the surfaces of the joint cease to move fluidly against one another. When it is rheumatoid arthritis, it can affect any of the bones in the hand, wrist and forearms. It will begin by attacking the synovial tissue, which is composed of cells that lubricate the joints. The synovium will be irritated, inflamed and swollen due to the condition, and this is going to quickly damage the bones and cartilage.
Though it is very common in the hands, it can happen anywhere, and is often found on both sides of the body. In the hands, it will cause the connective tissues between the bones to swell and stretch. This leads to deformity, but so too does inflammation that appears in tendons holding muscles to bones.
Recognizing Rheumatoid Arthritis
It is not difficult for a hand surgeon or expert to recognize the signs and symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis, and the sooner you begin addressing the condition the better your chances at managing it and maintaining range of motion in the hands.
Will you recognize the condition? Firstly, it tends to strike the knuckles of the fingers and the wrist area. It manifests as swelling and stiffness, but can also present some pain. The fingers will often swell, though not uniformly, and one finger may be far more swollen than others. (WebMD, 2015)
You might also notice that individual fingers are suffering some deformity. There are two ways this appears: as a Boutoniere deformity that forces the middle joint of the finger upward or the sway-back deformity that forces the middle joint into a bent position that forces the fingertip downward.
There will sometimes be a noticeable sound during movement, a “drifting” of the fingers in a direction away from the thumb, development of carpal tunnel syndrome (in which inflammation of tendons causes numbness when fingers are bent), tendon rupture, weakness or instability in joints, and a lump at the back of the hand that seems to move when you use the tendons of the hand.
Diagnosis and Treatment
Clearly, that is a long list of symptoms, and few patients can identify all of the signs. The first thing to do when you notice pain or swelling in the hands, or even one joint of the hand, is to visit your hand doctor. They can perform a thorough assessment and even order x-rays and/or blood tests to determine exactly what is going on.
Once a diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis is made, the emphasis of the treatment is on retaining or restoring function while reducing pain. Medications and therapies are available, but the first, and most important step is the diagnosis and work with your hand doctor.