My fingers are swollen and painful – is it a sprain or arthritis?
Sprained fingers may feel like arthritis, but there are several differences that set both conditions apart.
Differences and causes
Sprains tend to be sudden and caused by injury—often in the course of work, while indulging in hobbies or playing ball sports such as basketball and cricket. In general, finger sprains should not last longer than three weeks. Persistent pain indicates more than a sprain and should be examined by a doctor.
In contrast, arthritis is brought on by inflammation of the joints and often progresses gradually. Some may observe that symptoms remain stable for years before getting worse, while certain rare conditions like rapidly destructive arthritis could destroy joints in a matter of months.
Common causes of arthritis include hereditary factors, injury, autoimmune diseases and infection. To make a diagnosis, doctors often look out for:
- Waxing and waning pain over the course of a day. The pain may be more apparent in the morning and afternoon as you work with your hands, and then feel better after a good night’s rest. The converse would be true if you work night shifts.
- Redness, swelling, soreness, tenderness, stiffness and limited movement. These signs may be mild at first but could progress and even become visible, resulting in knobby and twisted joints. Arthritis could also impact one’s quality of life.
According to Singapore’s National Arthritis Foundation, there are more than 120 types of arthritis. Some of the most commonly seen in hands include osteoarthritis and those brought on by auto-immune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and psoriatic arthritis. Despite popular belief that arthritis is an old-age problem, anyone as young as six months could be at risk too. Certain occupations, such as being a dressmaker, pianist, chef or surgeon, or any other job which involves using the hands in repetitive tasks could also predispose individuals to the condition.
Using the RICE method (Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation) will help sprains heal on their own.
However, there is no definite cure for arthritis. Keeping a healthy lifestyle and avoiding trauma and non-ergonomic activities could reduce the risk of arthritis and delay its progression, but to treat its symptoms, doctors generally recommend occupational therapy, rest and splinting, with work and lifestyle modifications. For more serious cases, a hand surgeon might recommend surgery and replacement of certain joints.
The recovery period for splinting can be as short as three weeks, while surgery and the rehabilitation process to follow can last several months. The aim of these treatments is to decrease the intensity and recurrence of pain, and also to retain or return function to the upper limbs and hand.
This article has been verified medically by Dr Tan Ter Chyan, hand surgeon at Hand Surgery Associates, Mount Elizabeth Novena Specialist Centre (Singapore).