Pain in the wrist and forearm -- the area of the arm between the elbow and wrist -- is a common problem, which can have numerous causes. Some pain may be produced by a relatively mild or temporary condition such as a minor sprain. Pain can also be the result of more serious conditions like fractures or carpal tunnel syndrome. Properly diagnosing the cause of the pain is the first step toward receiving appropriate treatment.
A sprained wrist occurs when one or more ligaments in the wrist are overstretched. Ligaments are bands of fibrous tissue that join bones to other bones. They are located at joints, where they help keep the bones of the joint in the proper position. Wrist sprains are common, especially in people who participate in certain sports or recreational activities. Pain produced by wrist sprains is usually localized to the wrist area. The pain becomes worse when moving the wrist. Wrist sprains usually respond well to temporary immobilization of the wrist, such as with a splint.
Fractures, or breaks, in the bones of the forearm or wrist are relatively common injuries. They can range from simple fractures that may heal spontaneously to more complicated fractures that are accompanied by damage to adjacent tissues. Even with a small simple fracture, pain and swelling can be considerable. X-rays are needed to confirm the presence of a fracture.
Carpal tunnel syndrome is a common disorder involving compression of the median nerve located on the inside of the wrist. Overuse of the wrist due to repetitive movements over a prolonged period of time is often responsible for the condition. Carpal tunnel syndrome is more common during pregnancy and certain medical conditions like diabetes or an underactive thyroid. This syndrome can cause pain in the thumb and fingers, but not the little finger. The pain is often accompanied by numbness or tingling in the same area. Left untreated, carpal tunnel syndrome can worsen and become debilitating.
Tendonitis occurs when a tendon becomes inflamed. Tendons are bands of fibrous tissue that connect muscles to bones. Tendonitis in the wrist or forearm generally results from repetitively moving the hand, wrist or elbow. The inflammation can cause significant pain that worsens with movement. Tendonitis generally improves by limiting painful movements.
Arthritis -- inflammation of one or more joints -- is another condition that may cause pain in the wrist and forearm. The arthritis may be osteoarthritis, which is produced by normal joint degeneration as a person becomes older, or rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disease caused by a person's immune system attacking the joints. With arthritis, the wrist area is painful and may be swollen or warm. There a number of treatments for arthritis, including medications.
Ganglion cysts are fluid-filled sacs caused by leakage of fluid from joints or tendon sheaths -- the protective coverings that surround tendons. Ganglion cysts may be found in many areas of the body, but most commonly occur in the back of the wrist. Pain occurs around the cyst, often precipitated by joint movement. Sometimes cysts resolve on their own, but they often must be aspirated by inserting a small needle into the cyst to remove the fluid. Recurrent cysts may require surgery.
See your doctor if you have wrist or forearm pain that is worsening or if your pain is interfering with your activities. Seek prompt medical care if you are unable to move your wrist or have significant pain or swelling after an injury, as this suggests that you may have a fracture.
Reviewed by: Mary D. Daley, M.D.