Wrist Pain: 10 Common Causes & What to Do

Wrist pain can occur due to inflammation of a tendon (tendinitis) or bursa (bursitis) in the wrist area. It may also occur with compression of local nerves, or other health conditions, like rheumatoid arthritis or gout. 

Depending on the cause, wrist pain can be noted with other symptoms like wrist swelling, changes to skin color, and joint stiffness, which can make day-to-day activities more difficult. 

If you notice wrist pain, you should see a doctor for assessment and diagnosis. Treatment may involve the use of cold compresses, anti-inflammatories or even surgery. 

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What causes wrist pain? 

Wrist pain can occur for the following reasons:

1. Tendinitis

Wrist tendinitis occurs when a tendon that connects the end of a muscle to a bone becomes swollen. It can cause pain with movement of the wrist joint. 

Generally, tendinitis occurs due to a tendon injury, like repetitive movements from sitting at a computer or frequent housework. Wrist tendinitis can also occur as a result of arthritis or stiffness related to normal aging. 

What to do: Treatment involves resting the affected joint and avoiding repetitive movements to reduce swelling and relieve pain or discomfort. You can apply a cold compress to the wrist 20 minutes, twice a day. In some cases, the doctor may recommend physiotherapy, especially if the inflammation is frequent and does not resolve over time. Moderate to severe cases may require further treatment with anti-inflammatories or surgery. 

2. Bursitis

Wrist pain can also be a result of bursitis, or an inflammation of a bursa the wrist. Bursae are small fluid-filled sacs act as cushions that serve to prevent friction and injury between bones, tendons and muscles. 

Bursitis can be a consequence of a wrist injury, rheumatoid arthritis, gout or even a thyroid disease. These conditions can lead to an accumulation of liquid within the bursa, which can cause irritation or damage in the area. 

What to do: Treatment for wrist bursitis is aimed an reducing inflammation. The doctor can recommend analgesics, anti-inflammatories, physiotherapy, corticosteroid injections or even surgery, depending on severity. The doctor may also advise the application of cold compresses to the area for 20 minutes, once or twice a day.

3. Ganglion cyst

A ganglion cyst is a type of soft, round nodule, similar to a lump, that can emerge close to the wrist joint. It is associated with pain, constant tingling and weakness in the hand. 

Generally, this cyst is caused by repetitive movements or frequent, mild injuries to the wrist. These can cause synovial fluid to accumulate in the wrist, which can form into a nodule.  

What to do: A small ganglion cyst in the wrist will generally disappear on its own without any treatment. However, a large cyst that causes moderate pain and hand weakness should be assessed by an orthopedic surgeon, who may recommend treatment with anti-inflammatories. A large, symptomatic cyst may require drainage by a specialist using local anesthesia. 

4. Carpal tunnel syndrome

Carpal tunnel syndrome primarily occurs as a result of repetitive hand movements. It is characterized by compression of the nerve that passes through the wrist and innervates the palm, leading to wrist pain, hand tingling and changes to sensitivity. 

What to do: Treatment for carpal tunnel should be guided by an orthopedic surgeon, who may recommend cold compresses, immobilizing splints, anti-inflammatories and physiotherapy. Pain that does not improve with these measures may require treatment with surgery. Early diagnosis is important to prevent severe pain and complications. 

5. Wrist sprain

A sprain is another common cause of wrist pain. It can happen after lifting weights at the gym, carrying heavy bags, or engaging in martial arts or contact sports. 

In addition to wrist pain, it is also possible to notice swelling within a few hours of the injury. 

What to do: A wrist sprain can be very uncomfortable, which is why you should see a doctor for assessment. The doctor may order image testing to rule out a fracture or other health condition, and indicate the best treatment (which usually involves immobilization and rest). 

6. Rheumatoid arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis as an inflammatory autoimmune disease that is associated with intense pain and swelling in the joints. It can affect the wrists and lead to difficulty moving the wrist and hands, and well as finger deformity. 

Learn more about what causes rheumatoid arthritis and the symptoms associated with this condition.

What to do: Treatment for rheumatoid arthritis should be guided by an orthopedic surgeon or rheumatologist. Depending on the severity of symptoms, the doctor may prescribe anti-inflammatories, corticosteroids, immunosuppressants, biologic agents or physiotherapy. 

7. Fracture

Fractures are characterized by a partial or total break in any bone, which can happen after a ball or direct blow from physical activity, for example. A wrist fracture is associated with intense wrist pain, local swelling and changes to skin color in the area. 

What to do: It is important to proceed to the nearest emergency room to determine if a wrist fracture is present. The doctor can confirm a diagnosis with an x-ray. Treatment usually involves immobilization with a cast. 

8. Open wrist syndrome

Open wrist syndrome is associated with carpal tunnel instability that causes the wrist pain when the palm of your hand is facing down. The sensation is described as having an "opening" feeling in the wrist, and often requires the use of a wrist splint.  It is commonly experienced by adolescents and adults. 

What to do: You are advised to consult an orthopedic surgeon, who will likely order a an x-ray to determine if there is any abnormal distance between the bones. Even less than 1mm of a difference from the normal range can cause discomfort pain and cracking sounds from the wrist. 

9. De Quervain tenosynovitis 

De Quervain tenosynovitis is an inflammation of the tendons located at the base of the thumb. This swelling can cause wrist pain that worsens when using the wrist, especially repetitive movements. Other symptoms include stiffness and difficulty holding an object. 

Common activities that can cause this condition include prolonged gaming using a joystick or excessive cellphone use. 

What to do: Treatment for De Quervain tenosynovitis should be guided by an orthopedic surgeon and is aimed at managing the presenting symptoms. The doctor may recommend anti-inflammatories and wrist immobilization.  

10. Kienböck's disease

Kienböck's disease is a necrotic illness in the small bones that make-up the wrist. It occurs when the bones do not have adequate blood supply, causing them to deteriorate and cause symptoms like constant pain and difficulty moving or closing the hand. 

This disease is due to poor circulation of the semilunar bone in the wrist, causing pain. It is associated with trauma in the area, irregularities in the forearm bones, or even health conditions like lupus and sickle cell anemia. 

What to do: Wrist pain caused by Kienböck's disease is often confused for carpal tunnel syndrome. Therefore, you should see an orthopedic surgeon to confirm a diagnosis and start treatment, which may involve immovilization for 6 weeks or, in some cases, surgery to readjust bone positioning.