Hand Swelling: Why It Happens and How to Find Relief

Swelling in the hands can be quite concerning and be associated with pain, or numbness in the fingers and hands. Hands swelling can be caused by an allergic reaction, fluid buildup within the tissues, or inflammation of the joint in your hand, also known as arthritis. Read below for information on causes and how to reduce swelling in the hands. We also prepared you a free digital checker to help you narrow down the possibilities for hand swelling causes.

Common swollen hands symptoms

Hands are critical for daily life, and hand swelling is likely quite noticeable. Some causes of hand swelling will resolve on their own and are not cause for alarm. Others can progress to cause severe damage to the structures of the hand. Hand swelling may also indicate an underlying medical condition.

Swelling, or edema, is the result of fluid buildup that gets trapped in your body's tissues. Buildup can occur when there is an obstruction and fluid cannot properly flow and/or drain. However, fluid buildup can also occur when an area of the body becomes inflamed, injured or damaged. The small blood vessels in the body begin to leak fluid. Moreover, the body can bring in white blood cells to repair the damage, and more fluid follows. Depending on the cause, the swelling can be generalized and occur throughout the body, or localized and only affect a specific part of the body, such as one of your hands.

Common accompanying symptoms of hand swelling

If you're experiencing hand swelling, you're also likely to experience the following.

  • Pain
  • Warmth
  • Redness
  • Purple discoloration
  • Finger weakness, tingling, or numbness
  • Swelling in other areas of the body
  • Hives

What is causing your hand swelling?

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What causes swelling in hands?

How fluid buildup occurs in the hand

As stated above, fluid buildup can occur in the case of obstruction. In the case of fluid leakage, there are three general mechanisms that can occur that result in fluid buildup in the surrounding tissues of the hand:

  • Excessive force or pressure inside the blood vessels
  • A force external to the blood vessel that can cause fluid to be drawn out
  • Damage or destruction to the blood vessel wall leading to fluid loss

The exact causes behind these mechanisms can be broad, ranging from benign to life-threatening, so it is important to make an appointment with your physician in order to get appropriate care.

The following details may help you better understand your symptoms and if and when you need to see a physician.

Allergic or irritant reaction

The hands are used on a daily basis for essentially all activities, making them susceptible to allergens or cuts/injury that can easily become infected. Such causes can result in hand swelling along with other symptoms such as hives or pain.

Infections

Skin swelling, especially if associated with pain, redness, and warmth, can signal an infection, of which there are several types. Bacteria and fungus can enter through small breaks in the skin and cause cellulitis or inflammation of the skin. A skin infection that isn’t cleared up can lead to an abscess which is a pocket of pus that forms as your body tries to fight the infection. Sometimes a skin infection can reach deep into the hand and affect the ligaments, bones, and joints, especially when the bacteria or fungi are particularly aggressive, and requires immediate medical attention.

Dermatologic causes

Dermatologic causes that can result in swelling at the back of the hand may include the following.

  • Cysts: Cysts are sacs that can be filled with fluid, air, or other material that can form in any part of the body. On the back of the hand, cysts are often related to the joints and tendons near the wrist. See this image here of a type of cyst called a ganglion that is commonly found on the back of the hand.
  • Other: Penetrating injuries such as scratches or cuts may result in overgrowth of repair tissues that result in large and noticeable swelling or lump in the affected area. See an example of a type of this condition called a pyogenic granuloma here.

Cancerous causes

A swelling on the back of the hand may be concerning as it can be an initial sign of a cancerous process. However, there are signs and symptoms that are reassuring. If the swelling is soft and easily mobile that can be indicative of a different process. However, a swelling on the back of the hand that grows in size over time, changes color, or is hard, rigid or stuck in place should be followed up promptly. A cancerous swelling (also called a tumor or neoplasm) arises when cells divide and grow uncontrollably.

  • Benign: A cancerous growth is considered benign if it does not invade the local tissues are spread to other parts of the body. There are many benign tumors that involve the bones, muscles and soft tissues of the hand.
  • Malignant: A cancerous growth is considered malignant when the cells begin to invade other parts of the body. Melanoma is a type of skin cancer that often arises in the hand due to frequent exposure to the sun.

Arthritis

Many types of arthritis can cause swollen hands and fingers. If the swelling and joint inflammation progress, using the hands can become increasingly difficult.

  • Rheumatologic: This category includes inflammatory conditions involving the body's tissues and joints that can affect people of all ages, but most commonly affects older adults. Conditions such as arthritis cause inflammation that easily brings fluid into the tissues leading to swelling, redness, and tenderness in the joints. Other rheumatologic/autoimmune conditions such as Raynaud's phenomenon (a condition that results in narrowing of the blood vessels when stressed) or scleroderma (a condition characterized by hardening of the skin) often affect the hands and can result in unilateral swelling.

Medication-related causes

Side effects of certain medications may include swelling of the hands.

  • Intravenous medications: Sometimes IV medications leak out into the surrounding tissue and cause hand swelling symptoms.
  • Oral medications: Some oral medications cause swelling in the hands and feet. Blood pressure medications are particularly prone to causing swelling.

Injury-related causes

Injuries can result in hand swelling as the body tries to heal itself.

  • Bites: A cut from a human or cat tooth can cause serious injury to tendons, joints, and bones of the hand. Infection is also common and will lead to pain and swelling.
  • Fracture: Breaking a bone in the hand or wrist, such as by falling onto your outstretched hand, can cause hand swelling symptoms.

Causes of swelling in both hands

Systemic conditions that may result in hand swelling include the following.

  • Connective tissue disease: A disorder called scleroderma often has hand swelling as one of the first symptoms. You may also notice color changes in the hands when exposed to cold temperatures.
  • Fluid overload: Generalizable swelling occurring throughout the body, or anasarca, may be particularly noticeable in the hands. Increased fluid or edema can occur during pregnancy or due to kidney or liver disease.
  • Kidney dysfunction: Your kidneys play an important role in maintaining normal fluid levels in the body. If your kidneys are not working appropriately to clear excess fluid, you may notice swelling in your hands and other parts of the body. Kidney dysfunction may be a result of infection, inflammation, or chronic damage from high blood pressure or diabetes.
  • Heart dysfunction: Heart dysfunction, or heart failure, occurs when the heart is unable to appropriately pump blood into the circulatory system. When this happens, blood gets backed up in your blood vessels and the pressure that builds can encourage more fluid than normal to leak out into the body’s tissues leading to swelling, often of the hands and the feet.
  • Lymphatic dysfunction: The lymphatic system is responsible for clearing excess fluid, also called lymph, from the body’s tissues. If any component of the lymphatic system is damaged or obstructed, the buildup of lymph can be seen as swelling in multiple parts of the body, including the hands.

Causes in children

Hand swelling may occur in children due to the following.

  • Kawasaki disease: Hand swelling can be one sign of a syndrome that also involves high fever, swollen lymph nodes, and a red tongue.
  • Sickle cell disease: Swelling of the fingers and hands is a common presenting sign of sickle cell disease in young children.

Other causes

Other causes of hand swelling may include the following.

  • Cold exposure: Some people develop swelling and hives after exposure to cold temperatures or holding cold objects.
  • Exercise: Changes in blood flow during exercise may cause the hands to swell temporarily.
  • Lymphedema: A block in the drainage of lymphatic fluid can cause swelling in the hand and arm. This blockage can occur due to abnormalities in lymphatic drainage present at birth or as a side effect of surgery.

Dupuytren disease

Dupuytren Disease, also known as Dupuytren's contracture, is a condition that gradually causes connective tissue (fascia) under the skin of the palm to thicken and become scar-like. Although Dupuytren's isn't painful, it does restrict movement. The thickened tissue forces several fingers - usually the ring and pinky fingers - to curl in toward the palm.

Rarity: Uncommon

Top Symptoms: finger joint stiffness, hand bump, thickened skin on the finger, swollen hands, hand injury

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Bruised hand

A bruise occurs when small blood vessels break and leak their contents into the soft tissue beneath the skin, which causes the purple color of the bruise.

Rarity: Uncommon

Top Symptoms: hand injury, hand pain from an injury, pain in one hand, swelling of one hand, palm bruise

Symptoms that always occur with bruised hand: hand injury, hand pain from an injury

Urgency: Self-treatment

Angioedema

Angioedema is a condition which can cause swelling and puffiness of the face, mouth, tongue, hand or genitals. It is often related to an allergic reaction to food, medicines or insect bites.

Rarity: Rare

Top Symptoms: nausea or vomiting, abdominal cramps (stomach cramps), diarrhea, swollen face, hand swelling

Urgency: Hospital emergency room

Cellulitis

Cellulitis is a bacterial infection of the deep layers of the skin. It can appear anywhere on the body but is most common on the feet, lower legs, and face.

The condition can develop if Staphylococcus bacteria enter broken skin through a cut, scrape, or existing skin infection such as impetigo or eczema.

Most susceptible are those with a weakened immune system, as from corticosteroids or chemotherapy, or with impaired circulation from diabetes or any vascular disease.

Symptoms arise somewhat gradually and include sore, reddened skin.

If not treated, the infection can become severe, form pus, and destroy the tissue around it. In rare cases, the infection can cause blood poisoning or meningitis.

Symptom of severe pain, fever, cold sweats, and fast heartbeat should be seen immediately by a medical provider.

Diagnosis is made through physical examination.

Treatment consists of antibiotics, keeping the wound clean, and sometimes surgery to remove any dead tissue. Cellulitis often recurs, so it is important to treat any underlying conditions and improve the immune system with rest and good nutrition.

Rarity: Uncommon

Top Symptoms: fever, chills, facial redness, swollen face, face pain

Symptoms that always occur with cellulitis: facial redness, area of skin redness

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Rheumatoid arthritis

Arthritis is a general term for multiple conditions that cause painful inflammation and stiffness throughout the body. Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a chronic condition that is autoimmune in nature, meaning that the body's immune system which normally protects the body by attacking foreign pathogens mistakenly begins attacking the own body's tissues. In adults, RA is the most common form of inflammatory arthritis caused by autoimmunity.

Psoriatic arthritis

Psoriatic arthritis (PA) is a chronic inflammatory, autoimmune disease. The joint and skin are being attacked by the immune system. The exact causes are not known. PA typically occurs in people between the ages of 30 and 50.

While symptoms can vary widely from person to person, a red, scaly rash (psoriasis) is often the first sign. That is followed by inflammation of one or more joints, sometimes years after the rash appeared. Joint inflammation can lead to severe arthritis unless diagnosed and treated early.

Irritant contact dermatitis

Irritant contact dermatitis means a skin reaction that is caused by directly touching an irritating substance, and not by an infectious agent such as a bacteria or virus.

Common causes are soap, bleach, cleaning agents, chemicals, and even water. Almost any substance can cause it with prolonged exposure. Contact dermatitis is not contagious.

Anyone who works with an irritating substance can contract the condition. Mechanics, beauticians, housekeepers, restaurant workers, and health care providers are all susceptible.

Symptoms include skin that feels swollen, stiff, and dry, and becomes cracked and blistered with painful open sores.

A medical provider can give the best advice on how to heal the skin and avoid further irritation. Self-treatment can make the problem worse if the wrong creams or ointments are used.

Diagnosis is made through patient history, to find out what substances the patient comes into contact with, and through physical examination of the damaged skin.

Treatment involves avoiding the irritating substance if possible. Otherwise, the person can use petroleum jelly on the hands underneath cotton and then rubber gloves.

Rarity: Common

Top Symptoms: rash with well-defined border, itchy rash, red or pink, rough patch of skin, painful rash, red rash

Symptoms that always occur with irritant contact dermatitis: rash with well-defined border

Symptoms that never occur with irritant contact dermatitis: fever, black-colored skin changes, brown-colored skin changes, blue-colored skin changes

Urgency: Self-treatment

Lupus

Lupus is an inflammatory autoimmune disease that happens when the body's immune system mistakenly attacks its own cells, tissues, and organs. Lupus is also a systemic disease and can affect multiple body systems including the heart, lungs, joints and even skin.

Since lupus can affect multiple organ systems, symptoms can...

De Quervain's tenosynovitis

De Quervain's tenosynovitis is a painful condition affecting the tendons on the thumb side of the wrist. If you have de Quervain's tenosynovitis, you will feel pain upon turning your wrist, grasping anything, or making a fist.

Rarity: Uncommon

Top Symptoms: hand numbness, thumb pain, hand weakness, weakness in one hand, numbness in one hand

Symptoms that always occur with De Quervain's tenosynovitis: thumb pain

Urgency: Primary care doctor

So... which condition is actually causing your hand swelling?

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Treating swollen hands

When it is an emergency

Call 911 immediately for the following.

  • You have a hand injury: With tingling, numb, weak, or cold fingers
  • You have difficulty breathing or facial swelling
  • Your hand swelling occurred after a human or cat bite
  • You have pain and swelling after falling onto an outstretched hand
  • Quickly spreading or rapidly worsening redness
  • Severe, sudden, or worsening hand swelling and/or pain
  • High or persistent fever
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Lack of urination
  • Paralysis or inability to move the hands
  • You are concerned about a child who has hand swelling: Especially if he or she has been diagnosed with sickle cell disease, or the child also has a fever.

When to see a doctor

In some cases, you should see a physician even if emergency treatment isn't necessary. Make an appointment for hand swelling and the following:

  • You recently started a new medication
  • You were previously diagnosed with arthritis, sickle cell disease, or organ failure
  • You have a persistent growth on the hand
  • You develop open sores on the hand or fingers
  • You are pregnant
  • Persistent swelling
  • Gradually worsening swelling
  • Swelling that is spreading up the arm(s)
  • Pain that is worsening or spreading
  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Redness that is worsening or spreading
  • Numbness or tingling in the hands and/or fingers

Medical treatments

Your physician may prescribe one or more of the following treatments, depending on the cause of the hand swelling.

  • An epinephrine pen ("Epi-Pen"): This is to prevent dangerous allergic reactions.
  • Referral for surgical management of a hand mass
  • Treatment for an underlying medical condition
  • Anti-inflammatory medications
  • Diuretic: This is a medication to decrease the amount of fluid in the body.
  • Surgery: Surgery may be considered if your hand swelling is the result of compressive etiologies (causes) that may result from positional problems, such as typing, and sometimes masses in your hand, such as a cyst, that may be causing compression.

At-home treatments

The following home treatments may help with hand swelling.

  • Think ahead: If the swelling occurs in response to cold temperatures, protect your hands from cold objects or take an antihistamine like Benadryl ahead of time.
  • Rest: If your hand swelling is due to trauma or injury, resting and elevating the affected hand(s) can reduce the associated swelling and irritation.
  • Warm or cold compress: Applying a warm compress can help soothe redness and inflammation from an infectious process and can help warm hands exposed to prolonged cold temperatures. Applying a cold compress or ice can reduce redness and irritation from inflammatory or irritating causes like exposure to allergens, irritants, or heat.
  • Ice: This can help reduce swelling immediately after an injury.
  • Fluid intake: If your hand swelling is due to an infectious cause, increasing your fluid intake is critical in order to stay hydrated and keep your body strong enough to fight the infection, especially if you also have a fever.
  • Pain medication: Ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) or other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can help with swollen joints.

Prevention

Prevention of temporary symptoms of hand swelling can be treated by simple lifestyle changes:

  • Be mindful of hand positioning and movement: Avoid repetitive motions or cramped positions that put unnecessary pressure on the nerves and blood vessels of your hands.
  • Pay attention to posture: Relief can often be found in improving your posture, buying a support for your wrists while typing, or taking breaks throughout the day in order to lessen compression and irritation of the nerves in your arms/shoulders and subsequently your hands.
  • Seek help: If you are an IV drug user and are ready to seek help, talk to your healthcare provider about rehabilitation programs that are right for you.
  • RICE: The RICE (Rest, Ice, Compress, Elevate) mnemonic is an often-used guide for treating swelling due to injury. Try resting the hand for a good portion of the day, ice the hand for 20 minutes at a time as you see fit, use a wrap or bandage for compression, and keep the hand elevated when you can, such as on a pillow.

Swollen hands prevention

Prevention of temporary symptoms of hand swelling can be treated by simple lifestyle changes:

  • Be mindful of hand positioning and movement: Avoid repetitive motions or cramped positions that put unnecessary pressure on the nerves and blood vessels of your hands.
  • Pay attention to posture: Relief can often be found in improving your posture, buying a support for your wrists while typing, or taking breaks throughout the day in order to lessen compression and irritation of the nerves in your arms/shoulders and subsequently your hands.
  • Seek help: If you are an IV drug user and are ready to seek help, talk to your healthcare provider about rehabilitation programs that are right for you.
  • RICE: The RICE (Rest, Ice, Compress, Elevate) mnemonic is an often-used guide for treating swelling due to injury. Try resting the hand for a good portion of the day, ice the hand for 20 minutes at a time as you see fit, use a wrap or bandage for compression, and keep the hand elevated when you can, such as on a pillow.
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FAQs about hand swelling

Here are some frequently asked questions about hand swelling.

Is hand swelling during pregnancy dangerous?

Hand swelling, along with swelling of other parts of the body like the feet, often occurs as a normal part of late pregnancy. However, it can also be a sign of a condition called preeclampsia, which can be associated with dangerously high blood pressure. Make sure to tell your physician if you are swelling along with other symptoms like headache and visual changes. You should also make an appointment for evaluation of swelling if high blood pressure has ever been an issue during the pregnancy.

Why do my hands go numb and swell?

Hand numbness and swelling can be caused by carpal tunnel syndrome. Carpal tunnel syndrome is caused when swelling compresses the median nerve and impacts the first three fingers on each affected hand. Swelling can further compress the nerve and cause not only a lack of sensation but also pins and needles. Additionally, in severe cases, hand motion can be affected.

What should I do if my hand swells after a cat bite?

Cat bites can cause significant damage and infection of the skin, joints, or bone because the teeth can pierce deeply into the hand. Swelling after a bite may indicate a developing infection, particularly if redness and pain are also present. You should seek immediate medical evaluation for antibiotic treatment. Depending on the severity of infection and tissue damage, hospitalization and even surgical management may be required.

Can hand swelling occur due to an allergy?

Hand swelling would not be the only sign of an allergic reaction, but it can occur as one of several symptoms. The most serious type of allergic reaction is anaphylaxis, which involves the whole body and can be life-threatening. Seek immediate emergency evaluation if you have swelling of the face and lips, difficulty breathing, feeling faint, or gastrointestinal symptoms such as vomiting after exposure to an allergen such as an insect sting.

Can arthritis cause swollen hands?

Yes, arthritis can cause hand swelling in the fingers and the wrists. Arthritis often first causes swelling of the joints of the fingers. Which joint swells depends on the type of arthritis and the cause of the type of arthritis. Generally, hand swelling fluctuates during the day. While swelling may be present to some degree all day, swelling often changes throughout the day.

Why is only one of my hands swollen?

Several conditions can cause swelling of just one hand. Infection or injury will likely only involve one hand. An abnormality of lymphatic fluid drainage may affect only one side. Masses can affect just one hand, such as ganglion cysts. If you have been receiving an IV medication in one hand, you may notice swelling on that side.

Why is my range of motion limited in my hands?

Depending on the cause, hand swelling can cause a spectrum of limitations ranging from mild discomfort to complete stiffness or paralysis. The hands are made of multiple complex structures which all move in very specific ways to allow you the ability to make full use of your hands. Swelling interferes with the interaction of all the different parts of the hands which are required to work together to optimally function.

Will my hand swelling go away on its own?

It depends on the cause. Most causes of hand swelling, like those due to trauma or infection, resolve either on their own or with simple treatments like antibiotics, antifungals, anti-allergy, or anti-inflammatory medications. Some causes of hand swelling, like heart, kidney, or lymphatic dysfunction, may cause more long-lasting symptoms if not treated or prevented. Other diseases, like arthritis, can cause hand swelling that comes and goes over time.

What is the difference between frostbite and frostnip?

Frostnip and frostbite are both forms of injury to the skin and underlying tissues caused by exposure to extreme cold. Frostnip is milder and does not cause permanent skin damage and is characterized by cold and red skin. With continued exposure to the cold, your skin will become numb, pale and hard, or waxy. Frostnip can usually be treated by re-warming but frostbite requires medical attention to avoid permanent damage to the skin, tissues, muscle, and bone of the affected area.

Can medications cause hand swelling?

Yes, some medications can cause hand swelling as a side effect. In the hospital, IV medications may leak into the tissue surrounding the needle. Fluid overload, often particularly noticeable in the hands and feet, can be caused by oral medications such as blood pressure medications, estrogen, or anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin).

Is swelling of one hand after walking my dog normal?

A 2011 study published in ISRN Rheumatology found that postambulatory hand swelling is a relatively common occurrence, particularly in the female population. 28.9 percent of females versus 16.3 percent of males reported this phenomenon and dog owners were more likely than non-owners to report swelling.

What is the best way to treat hand swelling caused by minor trauma?

If surgery is not required, first-line therapies include many things you can perform at home such as compression, massage, elevation and alternating icing with heat. See above section.

Will my hand swelling spread?

It depends on the cause. Hand swelling due to trauma is typically confined to the area of injury or exposure. Hand swelling due to infection can spread if the infection is not treated and penetrates into the deeper tissue levels. Hand swelling due to systemic disease can also spread if more fluid continues to leak out of blood vessels, if over time the kidneys become even more dysfunctional and unable to clear the fluid, or if lymphatic obstruction worsens.

What is tenosynovitis?

Tenosynovitis is a medical term for the inflammation of a tendon. Tendons are strong, fibrous bands of tissue that connect muscles to bones. The tendon can become inflamed from a repetitive injury like typing and infection. The inflammation can result in pain and swelling of the wrist, hand, and fingers [1].

What does melanoma look like?

Many people have pigmented bumps or lesions on the skin, especially those with extensive exposure to the sun’s rays. However, these lesions become a cause for concern when you notice a lesion becoming asymmetrical in appearance, with irregular (not rounded or well-circumscribed) borders, varied color throughout, and a size greater than 6mm. If you notice any of these changes over time, seek medical attention promptly.

Why is my hand swelling painful?

Hand swelling associated with pain typically indicates an inflammatory or traumatic cause. Inflammation is the body’s natural reaction to infection or injury or can occur abnormally in the case of autoimmune disease. Part of the inflammatory reaction is the release of chemical substances that cause pain and swelling in the affected body part. This is why anti-inflammatory medications that dampen the inflammatory response can be used to treat pain that is associated with hand swelling.

Can I pop/drain the swelling on the back of my hand at home?

Though you may be tempted to pop or drain the swelling on the back of your hand, it is not advisable to do so on your own. Seeking care from a medical professional is necessary as the proper, clean tools are required for drainage in order to prevent infection or worsening of the condition.

Questions your doctor may ask about hand swelling

  • Where is your hand area swelling?
  • Have you ever been diagnosed with diabetes?
  • Have you ever been diagnosed with cancer?
  • Do you have these contractures that limit the movement of your fingers? (See picture)

Self-diagnose with our free Buoy Assistant if you answer yes on any of these questions.

Hear what 2 others are saying
Back of Hand Swollen and ItchyPosted February 23, 2020 by B.

I was woken up last 3 nights with back of my hand itchy. I work around a lot of cardboard. It is now swollen driving me crazy with the itch. What could it be??

Stiff HandsPosted January 8, 2020 by P.

I have to work with bleach water at work, doing dishes, and will have stiff hands for a good 24 hours after. Why is this? It seems like my knuckles are swollen, too. No pain, no redness. I use tons of moisturizer because my skin gets so dry while working.

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