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Here are the top three culprits. And what you can do to put a stop to the pain.

Ever find yourself pausing to rub the achiness out of your wrists? Or maybe hurting hands are disrupting your daily activities. Hand and wrist pain is more common than ever, thanks to the prevalence of smartphones and computer use at work. But how do you know if your pain is caused by a condition like carpal tunnel syndrome? 

“Many of the most common hand and wrist conditions share the same symptoms, but they have very different causes,” says Geisinger hand surgeon Joel Klena, MD. “They can originate in the muscle or the joint, and can be a result of genetics, general overuse or sudden impact.”

Read on for the top three causes of hand and wrist pain and common ways to treat them:

Carpal tunnel syndrome

With carpal tunnel syndrome, repetitive motions — especially when you’re working with your arms on a downward slant, with your hands below your wrists — cause a narrowing of the passage that squeezes the carpal tunnel nerve. 

“The condition is named after the carpal tunnel in your wrist, which acts as a passage for your median nerve,” said Dr. Klena. “This nerve controls feeling and movement in your thumb and fingers, except the pinky.” 

When the nerve narrows, it can be painful and cause cramping. In extreme cases, you can also lose muscle mass in your hands, leading to chronic cramping and weakness. Nighttime symptoms, including numbness and pain, can be strong enough to wake you up.

Carpal tunnel can be diagnosed through several manual tests performed by your doctor, most of which test your wrists’ reflexes or muscle response.

“Carpal tunnel can be treated with brief immobilization using a splint to give the wrists a break,” says Dr. Klena, “but can also call for anti-inflammatory drugs or even surgery in severe cases.” 

De Quervain's tenosynovitis

Another common cause of hand and wrist pain, de Quervain's tenosynovitis is marked by pain on the thumb side of your wrist. This condition often makes it difficult to make a fist or grasp objects. You may also have trouble moving your thumb or notice swelling near its base. 

Though its exact cause hasn’t been proven, experts believe tendon damage from repetitive motions like playing an instrument (or even texting) can trigger or worsen de Quervain's tenosynovitis. Pregnant women are also more prone to the condition, which usually dissipates after birth or the end of breastfeeding.

To diagnose it, your doctor will conduct the Finkelstein test, positioning your fingers and hand in a specific way that causes some pain if you have the condition — but doesn’t if you don’t.

Similar to carpal tunnel, de Quervain’s tenosynovitis can be treated with over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medication or corticosteroid injections to reduce swelling. 

Ganglion cysts

These common types of masses usually appear on the backs of wrists. Ganglion cysts are almost always benign, but can grow and fluctuate in size quickly. In larger sizes, they can also become painful or limit your wrist movement.

“Ganglion cysts come from the joint’s tissue and are filled with a fluid,” explains Dr. Klena. “Heavy use or repetitive movements often cause the cysts to grow, but rest can shrink the mass.”

Ganglion cysts can happen to men and people of all ages, but are most common in women between 15 and 40 years old. If the cyst causes pain or limits movement, your doctor may recommend immobilization or non-surgical draining (using a numbing cream). If the cyst returns, your doctor may recommend minor surgery to fully remove it.

No matter what hand or wrist pain symptoms you may have, your doctor will work with you to find a proper diagnosis and treatment to get your relief.

Next steps:

Meet Joel Klena, MD
Here’s how you can prevent work injuries
Learn about hand and wrist care at Geisinger