Different from the normal arthritis that occurs with aging, rheumatoid arthritis occurs when the immune system attacks the tissues surrounding the joints. This disease can strike at any age, even in children. Having family members with the disease is considered a risk factor, according to the Mayo Clinic. Most often, the first signs of this disease appear in the hands.
Fluid may start to collect at the joints, causing mild swelling, redness and irritation or pain. Benign growths called nodules may grow at the joints under the skin. These growths themselves are typically painless unless they are putting pressure on a joint. In mild forms of the disease, these symptoms may not affect a person’s daily activities or may only cause minimal discomfort.
In more advanced cases, the hands will be more swollen and painful in the morning, gradually getting better throughout the day. At times, those with this disease may wake up with their fingers in a curled position and are unable to straighten their fingers without excruciating pain. Such painful symptoms may make sleeping difficult and daily activities such as getting dressed nearly impossible.
Progression of Symptoms
Rheumatoid arthritis tends to vary in symptoms and progression for each person. Usually people will have what is termed “flare-ups,” where they have the more serious symptoms for a period of time followed by times of only mild or even no symptoms. Often winter is the time people experience the more serious symptoms with the cold and damp weather. Over a period of years, the disease eventually causes damage to the joints, leaving fingers obviously disfigured.
There’s not a single test that can confirm a diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis. Diagnosis comes from an evaluation of the signs and symptoms seen in the hands and other joints and blood tests. Persons may have regular X-rays of their hands to monitor the progression of the disease. Nodules in the hands can be biopsied. Rheumatoid nodules have characteristics when viewed under a microscope that can help diagnose the disease.
Treatment of Hand Symptoms
Treatment of rheumatoid arthritis in the hand varies depending on the severity and what the patient and their doctor feels is best for her. Those with mild symptoms may get relief from over-the-counter oral pain relievers and topical anti-inflammatory creams. Patients with more serious and debilitating symptoms may need prescription anti-inflammatory or steroid medications. Nodules can be surgically removed or injected with a steroid to reduce their size.
- typing hands image by Tom Davison from Fotolia.com