Pain in Wrist and Forearm: Causes and Treatments

One of the common complaints in general medical practices is pain in wrist and forearm. Although there are many causes of this kind of pain, it can be caused by a mild condition like a minor sprain. More serious conditions like carpal tunnel syndrome and fractures can also cause the pain. You have to diagnose the pain properly before settling for an appropriate therapy.

Possible Causes of Pain in Wrist and Forearm

1. Sudden Impacts

You are prone to sustaining a wrist injury when you fall on your outstretched hand. This fall can cause strains, fractures and sprains. A fracture involving a bone on the thumb side of the wrist is called a scaphoid fracture. A scaphoid fracture can be missed by X-rays immediately after the injury. You will experience severe pain when you try to hold something or move your wrist or thumb. Some swelling or bruising may also occur on the affected side of the wrist.

2. Repetitive Stress

This occurs when you are involved in an activity that calls for a repetitive wrist motion. It could be anything from driving cross-country to hitting a tennis ball or even bowing a cello. If such activities go on for a long time without taking a break, one can suffer stress fractures or inflamed tissues around the joints.

A repetitive stress injury that leads to feeling pain at the base of the thumb is called De Quervain’s disease. Other symptoms of the disease include swelling near the base of the thumb, pain traveling into the thumb and up the forearm, difficulty in pinching and grasping movements and a sensation in the thumb when you try to move it.

3. Osteoarthritis

This condition occurs when the cartilage involved in cushioning the ends of your bones deteriorates over time. Osteoarthritis occurring in the wrist is not common unless you had injured your wrist before. Limited motion, swelling, pain and weakness around the wrist joint are all signs of osteoarthritis of the wrist.

4. Rheumatoid Arthritis

People with rheumatoid arthritis have their immune system attacking their tissues. This condition commonly occurs in the wrist. In most cases, if one wrist is affected, there is a high likelihood of the other being affected as well. Rheumatoid arthritis affecting the wrist joint leads to limited motion, swelling, pain in wrirst and forearm as well as weakness. However, unlike osteoarthritis, this condition is characterized by swelling, pain and stiff knuckles.

5. Carpal Tunnel Syndrome

This syndrome occurs due to increased pressure on the median nerve. This is because the median nerve passes through the carpal tunnel on the palm side of the wrist. Common symptoms include numbness in your thumb, middle, index or ring fingers - not your little finger. This sensation may extend from your wrist to the forearm and it occurs when you are holding something. It can even wake you from your sleep. People with carpal tunnel syndrome experience weakness in their hands to the extent of dropping objects.

6. Ganglion Cysts

These are soft tissues that occur on the part of your wrist that is opposite your palm. Larger ganglion cysts cause less pain compared to smaller ones. Ganglion cysts appear as a soft bump usually 1-3 cm in diameter that keeps changing in size. The swelling does not move, may appear suddenly or gradually and may even disappear and come back in future. Some cysts are painful, but up to 35 % only appear without any pain. In cases where pain is present, it is chronic and worsened by joint movement. If the cyst is connected to a tendon, the affected finger feels weak.

7. Kienbock's Disease

Kienbock’s disease involves the collapse of one of the small bones in the wrist progressively. This disorder affects young adults and usually occurs when the blood supply to these small bones is interfered with. People with this disease experience stiff and painful wrists, decreased grip strength in the hand, difficulty turning the hand upward and tenderness on the bone on top of the hand, and in the middle of the wrist.

Treatments for Pain in Wrist and Forearm

There is a great variation in treatments for the pain. This is based on the location and severity of the injury, your age and overall health.

1. Rest

Keep off activities that cause pain or worsen it. Avoid work-related activities such as DIY and typing, sport specific training like racket. If you are an athlete, resort to other exercises like aerobics to keep fit in the meantime.

2. Wrist Splint

If you want to rest the wrist, wear a carpal tunnel wrist splint. The wrist splint immobilizes the wrist joint, but allows the hand to function. The splint is made of neoprene material and a metal spoon that helps prevent wrist movement.

3. Ice or Cold Therapy

Cold therapy helps relieve swelling and inflammation. Apply a specialist cold wrap or ice on the wrist for ten minutes at given intervals. Do this hourly in the beginning and keep reducing the frequency.

4. Medications

Acetaminophen and ibuprofen are over the counter medication that helps relieve wrist pain. Anti-inflammatory medication can be prescribed by your doctor to relieve pain in wrist and forearm.

5. Exercises

After being immobilized for a while, strengthening and stretching exercises will help prevent symptoms from coming back. Begin with gentle stretching and mobility exercising until motion around the joint is totally pain-free. The video below shows some examples:

6. Acupuncture

Another treatment that improves carpal tunnel syndrome is acupuncture. This procedure involves inserting needles of different diameters and lengths into specific points on the body. After inserting the needle, it is rotated after which it is either left in place for some minutes or removed immediately.

7. Injections

Lidocaine or corticosteroid injections are given if the symptoms persist. If all treatments fail and the symptoms do not improve over a period of 6 months, surgery is the next option.

8. Surgery

A surgery is needed when one has severely broken bones requiring the bone fragments to be connected using metal hardware. Tendon or ligament repair is done when there is need to repair ruptured ligaments and tendons. In case of severe carpal tunnel syndrome, it may be necessary to cut the tunnel open to relieve pressure on the nerve.

How to Prevent Pain in Wrist and Forearm

Although it is impossible to prevent the unpredictable happenings that lead to wrist and forearm injuries, there are ways to offer protection. Here are some tips on how to go about it:

1. Get Calcium

At least 1000 milligrams of calcium a day for adults and 1200 milligrams a day for women over 50 is required to help prevent fractures.

2. Prevent Falls

The main cause of most wrist fractures is falling on an outstretched arm. Wearing sensible shoes, lighting up your living space and removing home hazards will greatly help prevent falls. Installing handrails on the stairway and installing grab bars in the bathroom will also come a long way in preventing falls. Ensure you wear wrist guards when engaging in high-risk activities like snowboarding, football and rollerblading.

3. Pay Attention to Your Sitting Positions

Ensure you take regular breaks if you spend a long time using the keyboard. Keep your wrist in a relaxed neutral position when typing. Invest in foam or gel wrist support as well as an ergonomic keyboard to help prevent injuries.

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