Most people use their hands constantly – doing things like chopping vegetables, sending texts, gardening or playing sports. It’s no wonder that fingers, thumbs, wrists or your entire hand, can get sore or injured.
Hands contain many structures – including tendons, bones, ligaments, nerves and joints – that can all be sources of pain. Different types of injuries require different treatments, so understanding the cause of your pain is an important first step on the path to healing.
So, what does it mean if your fingers are tingling? What if your wrist is bruised and sore? What should you do if you have a deep cut in your hand but feel nothing at all? Below, we look at how your hand works, the different reasons for hand pain and when to seek treatment.
Is my hand pain caused by my tendons?
What do tendons do?
Tendons are cords that connect your muscles to your bones. When your muscles contract, your tendons pull on the bones, causing your joints to move. The two types of tendons in your hand and fingers – flexor and extensor tendons – pass through tunnels called tendon sheaths, which keep the tendons organized and close to your bones.
What are causes of tendon injuries?
Tendons can be cut accidently with a knife or other tool. Tendons can also be a source of pain when they are inflamed from overuse.
Acute injuries to your tendons
Cuts to the hand can injure the tendons that straighten out your fingers (extensor tendons on the back of the hand) or tendons that bend your fingers (flexor tendons on the palm side of the hand). If you cut a tendon, the tendon will stop working, and you’ll be unable to bend or straighten the finger.
If your hand or finger gets hit very hard, your tendons may stretch, tear or detach from the bone. For example, “mallet fingers” are common sports injuries to the hand that happen when a ball or another item strikes the tip of the finger with a lot of force. When this happens, the extensor tendon can tear away from your bone, and you’ll no longer be able to straighten your fingertip.
Most injuries to flexor tendons are caused by a cut to your palm. One example may be a kitchen knife injury from cutting an avocado while holding it in your hand. However, flexor tendon injuries can also be caused if your finger or thumb is forcefully pulled away from you, causing the tendon to tear or rupture.
Tendon overuse injuries
You can injure your tendons by using them a lot over a long period of time. Through repetitive use, your tendons can become irritated, inflamed and swollen, making it difficult for them to move through the tendon sheath. This condition is called tendonitis and can affect both flexor and extensor tendons.
Athletes who play tennis, baseball or golf are prone to tendonitis because activities like swinging a racket, golf club or bat can cause hand and wrist strain. The most common types of hand tendonitis are:
- De Quervain’s tenosynovitis–This type of tendonitis is caused by repetitive wrist motions and causes pain in the forearm, wrist and thumb.
- Trigger finger–Also known as stenosing flexor tenosynovitis, this type of tendonitis affects the flexor tendons on the palm side of your hand. If you have trigger finger, you may not be able to bend or extend your finger or thumb. It might also “lock” in a bent position, and you would need to use a different finger to straighten it out. Repetitive gripping can worsen trigger finger. The condition is more common in people with a diabetes.
What are signs of a tendon injury?
If you have a tendon injury that’s caused by trauma, you may not be able to move, straighten or bend your hand or fingers – and you’ll have pain or tenderness when you try.
If you have tendonitis, the pain in the injured area will develop over time. Usually it’s not especially painful – usually the pain is described as a dull ache you’ll feel when moving the injured area. You may also have tenderness or swelling.
When should I get treatment for a tendon injury?
If you suffered a traumatic injury to your hand and are unable to flatten your hand or move your fingers, head to orthopedic urgent care for prompt medical attention.
If you think you have a tendon injury caused by overuse, take a break from activities causing discomfort and make an appointment with a hand specialist. They will work with you to develop a treatment program to help you heal and regain strength.
Is my hand pain caused by my nerves?
How do nerves work?
Nerves provide sensation and coordinate your body’s movement. A nerve includes a bundle of nerve fibers, surrounded by a layer of connective tissue that protects them. When a nerve is injured or compressed, you may feel numbness, burning and tingling, or pain.
There are three main nerves in your hand – the radial nerve, median nerve and ulnar nerve. These nerves start in your armpit, run down your arm and into your hand. Because of this, it’s possible that injuries to your shoulders, neck or arms can result in nerve pain in your hands and fingers.
What are causes of nerve pain?
Nerve pain can be caused by compression, irritation, injury and certain medical conditions. All the nerves in your hand can cause nerve pain.
Compression is when something in your body (usually soft tissue), presses down on the nerve. This extra pressure can cause irritation and pain, resulting in conditions such as:
- Carpal tunnel syndrome–The median nerve travels through a canal at your wrist known as the carpal tunnel. The median nerve provides sensation to the thumb, index, middle and ring fingers. When the nerve is under pressure at the wrist (carpal tunnel syndrome), you may experience intermittent or constant numbness, burning or tingling in your hand. For many people, carpal tunnel syndrome symptoms are worse at night, waking them up and making it difficult to get back to sleep.
- Cervical radiculopathy–Commonly known as a pinched nerve, this condition happens when a nerve in your neck is irritated or compressed. Because the nerves run down to your arms and hands, you may experience pain, numbness, burning, tingling or weakness in your arms and hands. Pinched nerves are more common as you get older. But younger people get pinched nerves, too – usually after an injury that causes a herniated disc.
Acute nerve injuries
Acute injuries to the hand and fingers can be the cause of nerve pain and damage, resulting in:
- Crushed nerves–If your hand is crushed under something very heavy or between objects with a lot of force, it can damage the nerve, causing numbness, tingling or weakness.
- Cut nerves–An accidental cut on your fingers or hand can damage a nerve. If you experience numbness in your fingers or hand after a cut, you should seek care immediately. Cut nerves usually require surgery.
You may have neuropathy if multiple nerves in your body are not working well, which could lead to a loss of sensation in your hands and feet.
Neuropathy nerve damage is more common in older people and those with diabetes (the most common form of neuropathy is diabetic neuropathy) or other medical conditions. You may also have an increased risk of neuropathy due to toxins, alcoholism or medications like chemotherapy.
What are signs of a nerve injury?
- Inability to perform certain movements because your hand doesn’t move correctly or it’s too weak
- Shooting pain at the injury site or along the nerve – this feeling can come and go, but sometimes the pain is constant
- Numbness or tingling, usually near the injury but sometimes along the entire nerve
- Loss of sensation – sometimes if you have nerve damage, you may feel nothing at all
When should I get treatment for nerve-related hand pain?
If you have signs of nerve irritation or injury, you’ll want to talk to a doctor. If your symptoms are mild, schedule an appointment with a hand specialist. But if you are experiencing severe pain or have lost feeling in your hand after an injury, head to orthopedic urgent care right away.
Is my hand pain caused by my ligaments?
What do ligaments do?
A ligament is a tough band of fibrous tissue that attaches one bone to another bone. Ligaments help hold structures, like joints, together and keep them stable.
What causes ligament injuries?
When a ligament is stretched or torn, it causes a sprain. You may get a finger or a wrist sprain if you twist or bend your hand abnormally – like if you fall on an outstretched wrist or if your hand extends too far backwards when lobbing the volleyball over the net.
What are signs of a hurt ligament?
- Pain that feels worse with movement
- Swelling and bruising around the injured area
- A “popping” when you move your hand or finger
When should I get treatment for a ligament injury?
Usually, you can treat a simple sprain at home. If your injury doesn’t get better in a couple days, make an appointment with a hand specialist. It may be possible that you hurt a bone and need additional care.
Is my hand pain caused by my bones?
What do bones do?
Bones give your body its structure. Your bones work with your muscles and joints to hold your body together and allow it to move. There are 27 bones in each of your hands, for a total of 54 hand and wrist bones. This is quite a lot when you consider that most adults have a total of 206 bones – about 25% of your bones are in your hands!
Having so many hand bones allows us to bend and flex our hands in all the ways we need to.
What causes injured bones?
When you break a bone, it’s called a fracture. You may fracture your wrist by landing on it during a fall. Or, you may break your finger if your finger strikes something or gets struck with a lot of force.
When we think about bone damage, we tend to think about broken bones. But that’s not the only way bones get hurt. Bones can also become bruised, but you may not be able to tell from the outside. Your bones get weaker and more fragile with age, so it’s easier to injure them.
What are signs of a hurt bone in your hand?
- Sudden pain that may be severe and gets worse when you move your hand
- Warmth, bruising and redness
- Inability to move your finger or hand
- Obvious deformity
When should I get help for a bone injury?
If you think you’ve broken your hand, head to orthopedic urgent care. Getting immediate medical attention can help ensure the best healing as you recover.
Is my hand pain caused by my joints?
What are joints?
Joints are where two or more bones come together. The ends of the bones are covered with cartilage, which provides cushion and a smooth gliding surface.
What causes joint problems?
Sore joints can happen if the cartilage in the joints wears down, there’s inflammation in the surrounding tissues, or if bones are knocked out of place.
Wear and tear
As you age, the cartilage that protects the ends of your bones can start to wear out, leading to osteoarthritis (the most common type of arthritis).
Joint inflammation is related to several different conditions, including:
- Rheumatoid arthritis–This type of arthritis is an autoimmune disease, in which your body’s immune system attacks healthy tissue in your joints.
- Psoriatic arthritis–If you have this type of arthritis, it affects both your skin (you have psoriasis) and causes inflammation of the tissues surrounding your joints.
- Gout–This type of inflammatory arthritis is caused by the buildup of uric acid in the joints and soft tissues. Uric acid is a normal byproduct of your body’s processes. In most cases, your kidneys filter uric acid from your blood, and it leaves your body through your urine. But if your body can’t get rid of all the uric acid, it can solidify into crystals that settle in your joints and cause damage.
- Bursitis–If you have bursitis, there’s inflammation in the sacs of fluid that provide cushioning for your joints.
If the joints in your hand are knocked or twisted, they can become dislocated – meaning the bones don’t come together at the joint like they should.
Joint dislocations are especially common in fingers, but they can also happen where your bones connect at your knuckles and wrist. This type of injury can happen during a car accident, when you fall on your hand or if you play contact sports.
What are signs of joint problems?
- Pain, especially when you move your joints
- Stiffness, which may be more noticeable when you wake up or if you haven’t moved your hands in a while
- Difficulty bending or flexing the affected part of your hand
- Tenderness and sensitivity to even the slightest pressure
- The sensation of bones rubbing together
- Bones that look like they are at the wrong angle or deformed
When should I get help for joint problems?
If you’re suffering from sore joints in your hands – regardless of the cause – it’s a good idea to make an appointment with a hand specialist. They’ll put together a treatment plan to help you heal and manage your pain.
But depending on your situation, your primary care doctor can also be a good resource. For example, if you have gout, your primary care doctor can discuss ways to keep your uric acid levels in check.
If you think you have a dislocated bone, don’t try to push it back in place yourself – that can cause further damage. Instead, head to orthopedic urgent care.
Is my hand pain caused by something else?
In some situations, you may have hand pain that’s not directly caused by injury or damage to your hand’s anatomy. These include abnormal tissue growths called ganglion cysts and swelling in your hands and fingers.
Ganglion cysts are noncancerous growths that can develop along the tendons and joints in your hands. Ganglion cysts are filled with a jelly-like substance and are usually between the size of a pea and the size of a quarter. They may be larger if they are located on a joint.
Anyone can get them, but they are more likely in women between the ages of 20 and 40. They are also more common in people with osteoarthritis and occur more frequently near joints or tendons that have been injured.
In many cases, these cysts don’t cause pain or other problems. But if the cyst presses down on a nearby nerve, it can cause pain. And depending on the size and location, they can affect joint movement.
What are signs of ganglion cysts?
If you have a round, mushy lump on your hand, it could be a ganglion cyst.
When should I get help for a ganglion cyst?
Ganglion cysts often go away on their own. But if you have a growth that doesn’t go away, make an appointment with a hand specialist to talk about options. Treatment generally involves draining the fluid from the cyst or surgical removal.
Swelling in your hands
Edema is the medical name for swelling that happens when extra fluid is trapped in your body’s tissues. If you have arthritis, it may be the reason for your hand edema. Other reasons can be eating too much salt, increased body temperature and certain medical conditions.
What are signs of edema?
- Swelling or puffiness, directly below the skin
- Skin that looks stretched or shiny
- A dent that remains in your skin for a second after you press it
When should I get help for edema?
In many cases edema will go away on its own. But get help if it’s especially painful. Work with a hand specialist if your hand swelling might be related to your arthritis, otherwise make a primary care appointment. If you’re having trouble breathing, chest pain or a high fever, call 911 – your edema might be a sign of a serious condition.
Find the best hand pain treatment for you
Many of the signs of hand injuries are similar, even though the causes can be very different. Getting care from a hand specialist can help determine the reason for your hand pain and get the treatment you need.
If you have severe pain, limited movement or loss of sensation following a traumatic injury, head to orthopedic urgent care and have your hand treated right away.
If you have hand pain that’s become worse over time, make an appointment to see a hand specialist. They’ll be able to work with you to manage your symptoms and regain strength.