When to See a Doctor for Wrist Pain

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Woman working with wrist pain
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Your wrist is used every day all day long and, when you can’t move it without pain, it can affect just about everything you do, from getting dressed to working. This complex joint has eight small bones and many ligaments that allow you to move your hand up and down, and from side to side. Your wrist also stabilizes your hand for other functions, such as typing or lifting an object. If you have wrist pain or a swollen wrist, either from an acute injury, chronic use, or a disease, you may need to see a doctor for diagnosis and treatment.

Common Causes of Wrist Pain

Wrist pain is common, oftentimes caused by repetitive movements, such as using your computer’s keyboard or mouse over a long period. Accidental injuries and chronic or long-term conditions are other causes of wrist pain.

Besides overuse injuries, here are the most common reasons why people experience wrist pain:

  • Sprains—a fall, particularly if you land on an outstretched hand, can stretch or tear the ligaments causing a sprained wrist.

  • Entrapment syndromes—irritation or compression of nerves traveling down your arm, through your wrist to your hand can cause significant pain. The most common nerve entrapment is carpal tunnel syndrome. It can cause pain in your wrist and numbness in your thumb and fingers except for the little finger.

  • Arthritis—the most common types of arthritis affecting the wrist are rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, and post-traumatic arthritis, which is arthritis following a wrist injury.
     
  • Fractures (breaks)—most wrist fractures occur when you fall and land on an outstretched hand.

  • Ganglion cysts—cysts are small sac-like structures, often filled with fluid. They can form on your wrist, usually on the back of your wrist. They may or may not be painful.

  • De Quervain’s tendinosis—a condition marked by irritation and painful inflammation of the tendons around the base of your thumb.

Wrist Pain Treatment at Home

Self-care for wrist pain is very effective in most cases. Pain caused by a wrist overuse injury will often improve if you stop the activity. The longer you continue the activity, the worse the pain can be and the worse the damage may be to the wrist structure. The most common home-care recommendation for joint injuries is the RICE method:

  • Rest. Reduce your activity, alternate with your other arm if possible, or take a break altogether.

  • Ice. 20 minutes a few times a day or more, for several days. Take care with your skin to avoid direct contact—place a towel between the ice pack and your wrist.

  • Compress your wrist. Wrap your wrist with a compression or pressure bandage to help support it and reduce swelling if any is present. A wrist brace is another option that can limit movement, allow the area to heal, and prevent further injury. If you are unsure of what type of wrist support to use, ask your doctor, physical therapist, or an athletic trainer for their recommendation.

  • Elevate your wrist. Keeping your arm elevated above the level of your heart will help decrease swelling.

 

Pain relievers and heat therapy (20 minutes sessions) are two other at-home treatments for wrist pain due to arthritis, overuse, and minor injuries. Choose pain relievers containing acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin). Heat therapy is effective for tired, achy wrists. The warmth increases blood flow and helps with healing. For wrist sprain and swelling, practice RICE the first 24-48 hours until the swelling goes down, then alternate cold and warm therapy.

When to See a Doctor for Wrist Pain

You need emergency care for wrist pain after an injury caused by a fall or some other type of trauma, and there is an obvious deformity of your wrist (possible dislocation or broken wrist), swelling, severe pain, or loss of sensation in any part of your hand. Delaying treatment could cause permanent damage to and around your wrist.

See a doctor promptly if you have severe wrist pain (but no obvious injury) or trouble moving your wrist, or you are experiencing numbness or loss of sensation in your hand or fingers. Schedule a same-day appointment or go to an urgent care facility.

Contact your doctor for a regular appointment when:

  • Your wrist pain isn’t going away even after refraining from the activities that caused the pain.

  • The pain is present even when you’re not using your hand.

  • The type of pain changes or increases, such as minor pain and stiffness in the morning to sharp pain with any movement.

  • The pain returns when you resume activities, such as wrist pain from using a keyboard or mouse, or lifting something.

  • There is new swelling, a lump, or redness around the wrist, which are signs and symptoms of infection.

Who to See for Wrist Pain

Primary care providers can diagnose and treat most cases of wrist pain, but you may want to see a specialist for chronic conditions like rheumatoid arthritis. For more serious injuries or disorders, such as severe carpal tunnel syndrome with loss of sensation, your doctor will refer you to a hand surgeon or orthopedic surgeon.

If you go to an urgent care center, you’ll see a healthcare provider trained in urgent care—a nurse, doctor or physician assistant. If you go to the emergency department, an emergency medicine physician will evaluate you for the type of care you need and determine next steps, such as surgery to repair a broken wrist.

Other specialists who care for people with wrist pain and its causes include rheumatologists, physiatrists, sports medicine providers, physical therapists, occupational therapists, and athletic trainers.

Wrist pain can interfere with work and play activities, so it’s important to get your wrist checked if your pain doesn’t go away. The earlier you seek treatment, generally the easier it is to resolve the problem. If you have wrist pain or swelling and it’s not going away with self-treatment, speak with your doctor about your treatment options.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Apr 24
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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