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Why do my wrists hurt so much?

4 minute read
Person checking for wrist pain

Wrist and hand pain is no fun. Learn some common reasons for that aching feeling — and how you can get relief at home.

Rosemary Black

By Rosemary Black

You use your hands and wrists for practically everything you do. So, when they hurt, it can really impact your day. Our digital lifestyle doesn’t help either. Typing on a laptop, texting and scrolling through social media can make that achy feeling worse.

Many people assume that wrist pain means they have carpal tunnel syndrome. That’s one possibility. But there are other reasons that you might be in pain, too.

Read on to learn what conditions can cause wrist pain — and how to get relief at home.

Common cause #1: Carpal tunnel syndrome

Carpal tunnel syndrome affects the medial nerve that runs down your arm. “It happens when this nerve is pinched or irritated,” says Peter Stein, MD. He’s an orthopedic surgeon at St. Francis Hospital in Roslyn, New York. With carpal tunnel syndrome, you may experience numbness or tingling in your fingers. Your hand may also be weak.

“This condition is most common in women over age 50,” says Kevin Lutsky, MD. He’s an orthopedic surgeon at the University of Vermont Medical Center in Burlington. Certain medical conditions can increase your risk. These include:

  • Thyroid disease
  • Diabetes
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Obesity
  • Pregnancy

You can reduce the stress on your wrists with lifestyle changes, says the Mayo Clinic. Try to improve your posture when you sit at a computer, give your wrists a break occasionally and change your computer mouse. These steps may relieve symptoms.

If your pain is severe, your doctor may give you a steroid injection. Or they may suggest surgery. “With surgery, the hand heals quickly because there is good blood flow in the area,” says Clayton Alexander, MD. He’s an orthopedic surgeon at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore, Maryland. “People get back to living their life within about a week.”

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Common cause #2: Tendinitis

Tendinitis is the inflammation or irritation of a tendon. When this condition affects your wrist, you feel pain around the joint.

General symptoms to look out for are:

  • Dull ache in the wrist or hand
  • Tenderness
  • Swelling

You’re more likely to get tendinitis if you frequently move your hand or wrist in the same way. The condition often occurs in people who have repetitive job activities or play a sport.

Most cases of tendinitis can be treated at home. In serious cases, seek a doctor. They may offer you steroid injections or steroids.

Common cause #3: Arthritis

Your hand or wrist may also hurt if you have arthritis. Your wrist joint will be painful, swollen and inflamed. You’re more likely to have the condition if you’re older, have another health condition or are recovering from an injury. About 1 in 7 Americans have arthritis in the wrist, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

Besides pain and swelling, other symptoms to look out for are:

  • Trouble moving your wrist
  • Red or warm joint
  • Stiffness in the morning
  • Wrist and hand weakness

Relieving wrist pain at home

No matter the cause of your pain, there are some ways to get relief before you call a doctor:

  • Wear a wrist brace or splint at night. It can limit wrist movement while you sleep.
  • Take breaks from activities that put stress on your hands (for example, typing at the computer or scrolling on your smartphone)
  • Apply ice packs to your wrists
  • Take ibuprofen (Advil®) to help with inflammation
  • Use a prescription anti-inflammatory gel on your wrists (Voltaren®)

Tips for preventing hand and wrist pain

Making small changes in your lifestyle habits can help stop wrist pain from happening.

Ease up on high-stress activities. Moves like blow-drying your hair and holding heavy objects make your wrists flex downward. Symptoms also flare up when you hold something for a long time, such as a steering wheel or a book, according to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons. Take frequent breaks from these activities to let your joints, tendons and nerves relax.

Lose weight if you’re overweight or obese. Obesity does not directly cause carpal tunnel syndrome and other wrist problems. “But we see a lot of people with obesity who aren’t active and also have hand and wrist pain,” Dr. Stein says.

Be smart when you lift. Use the right techniques for lifting objects. Keep your back natural, squat and let your legs do the work.

Stretch it out. Do some hand and wrist stretching exercises. This can be as simple as bending your wrist back and forth. Always be aware of your posture and wrist position.

Woman with her laptop
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Additional sources
Carpal tunnel: National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (2020). “Carpal Tunnel Fact Sheet”
Tendinitis facts: Mayo Clinic (n.d.). “Tendinitis”
Arthritis background: Cleveland Clinic (2021). “Arthritis in Wrist”
Lifting: Mayo Clinic (2021). “Proper lifting techniques”
Taking breaks: American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons (2022). “Carpal Tunnel Syndrome”