Arthritis will affect approximately 67 million people in the United States by the year 2030, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Two main types of arthritis affect the fingers. Osteoarthritis is a condition caused by the progressive breakdown of cartilage that provides padding between bones in the joints. Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disorder that causes the body to mistakenly attack joint tissues. Early signs of arthritis in the fingers include pain, warmth, swelling, stiffness and weakness.
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Pain and Warmth
Joint pain is usually the earliest sign of arthritis in your fingers. Pain typically worsens with activity, particularly if you haven't been using your hands much for a period of time. Early on, this pain may be mild or short-lasting. However, it typically becomes more severe as arthritis progresses. Osteoarthritis may cause pain in one or more finger joints, frequently affecting the joints at the ends of your fingers and base of the thumb. Rheumatoid arthritis pain affects multiple joints and typically occurs in the same fingers on both hands. Inflamed finger joints may be warm to the touch with rheumatoid arthritis.
In some cases, swelling may be the first symptom of finger arthritis -- even before you develop pain. You may notice that your fingers feel puffy, particularly first thing in the morning. Your knuckles may look like they have disappeared. This may make it difficult for you to grip objects such as a hairbrush or pencil. Swelling may improve throughout the day. Muscle contractions as you move your hands help pump excess fluid out of the fingers. Compression gloves worn while you sleep help prevent swelling.
Joint stiffness may occur as an early sign of finger arthritis. You may find it difficult to bend your fingers first thing in the morning, particularly if your fingers are also swollen. Showering, brushing your teeth and getting dressed can be difficult when your fingers are stiff. If you have osteoarthritis, this stiffness may improve within a few minutes as blood flow increases to your fingers when they are exposed to warm water or as you begin to move. Stiffness may also occur in the evening after a period of rest if you have used your hands a lot during the day. Stiffness caused by rheumatoid arthritis may last for hours.
Weakness can signal early finger arthritis. You may notice that you are dropping things or have difficulty turning doorknobs. Because osteoarthritis frequently affects the thumb, you may have difficulty turning a key or holding a book. Lifting a milk jug and opening a jar are often difficult with either type of arthritis. Weakness may be more evident in the evening when you are tired. This sign may be more obvious as the disease progresses and tissues in your joints break down.
When to Seek Medical Attention
See your doctor for an accurate diagnosis if you suspect you have arthritis in your fingers. Medications are available to treat arthritis symptoms and may even slow the progression of the disease.