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Causes of Wrist Swelling & How to Treat a Swollen Wrist

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Last updated April 15, 2024

Swollen wrist quiz

Take a quiz to find out what's causing your swollen wrist.

A swollen wrist is usually a symptom after a traumatic injury, including wrist sprains, bruising, or bone fractures. Other causes of swelling in the wrist can arise from overuse or arthritis which is caused by inflammation of the joints. Read below for more information on causes and treatment options.

7 most common cause(s)

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Polymyalgia Rheumatica
Rheumatoid Arthritis
Psoriatic Arthritis
Wrist Sprain
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De Quervain's Tenosynovitis
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Repetitive strain injury of the upper arm
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Buckle fracture of distal radius

Swollen wrist quiz

Take a quiz to find out what's causing your swollen wrist.

Take swollen wrist quiz

Swollen wrist symptoms

A swollen wrist is usually the result of an injury associated with traumatic events that result in sprains and fractures. If you don't remember injuring your wrist, you may be experiencing swelling from other chronic issues. For example, stress from repetitive activities such as knitting and typing can result in swelling.

Swelling, in general, is the result of fluid that builds up in your body's tissues. When an area of the body becomes inflamed, injured, or damaged, the small blood vessels in the body begin to leak fluid. White blood cells also arrive to repair the damage, resulting in more fluid and further swelling.

Common accompanying symptoms of a swollen wrist

If you're experiencing wrist swelling, you may also experience the following symptoms.

Some of these symptoms may occur before the swelling emerges, so it is important to know and be able to identify these signs. As soon as you observe symptoms, make an appointment with your doctor to receive appropriate care.

Swollen wrist causes

Many factors can lead to wrist swelling. The following details may give you a better understanding of your symptoms. However, you should see a physician for a proper diagnosis if your wrist swelling worsens or persists.

Wrist structure

The wrist is a joint with multiple components — bones, muscles, nerves, blood vessels, ligaments, and tendons. The wrist is susceptible to injury and subsequent swelling in numerous places. See this image for a visual representation.

Any condition that causes stress, overuse, or damage to these components can result in wrist pain, injury, and swelling. It is essential to make an appointment with your physician to get an accurate diagnosis and proper treatment.

Traumatic causes

Traumatic events, such as motor vehicle accidents, can cause obvious injury to the wrist. Other events may also result in injury.

  • Falls: Falling on an outstretched hand puts direct trauma on the wrist. Bones can easily shift and break, nerves and blood vessels can be pinched and severed, and muscles and ligaments can be torn. Regardless of the exact mechanism, wrist swelling will occur.
  • Sports injuries: Similar to falls, wrist swelling from injuries is a common occurrence in contact sports, such as football and hockey. Furthermore, wrist injury and swelling can occur in sports that may involve falls such as skiing, volleyball, or biking.

Positional causes

Positions such as typing and knitting that put direct pressure on the nerves in the wrist can cause chronic stress and injury. These activities may seem benign, but when performed often, they can lead to a wrist injury that can result in chronic swelling .

Inflammatory causes

Processes that cause inflammation of the components of the wrist, especially the blood vessels and nerves, can cause compression and pressure that results in inevitable swelling and also injury.

  • Arthritis: Arthritis is a general term for multiple conditions that cause painful inflammation and stiffness of the bones and joints. Arthritic processes can affect many parts of the wrist and cause irritation that often leads to injury. Many people with arthritis have multiple joints that are in a constant state of swelling.
  • Cysts: Cysts are sacs filled with fluid, air, or other material that can form in any part of the body. The body recognizes these fluid-filled structures as foreign, and the body often mounts a reparative response that results in swelling around the cyst.

This list does not constitute medical advice and may not accurately represent what you have.

Wrist sprain

A wrist sprain is an injury to the ligaments in the wrist. A mild sprain involves just stretching of the ligaments while more severe sprains can tear the ligaments.

You should see your primary care doctor tomorrow. He or she may request imaging to make sure that there is no further damage to the bones of the wrist.

Rheumatoid arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic inflammatory disorder that affects the lining of the joints, causing them to become thickened and painful. It can also affect other parts of the body such as the heart, lungs, eyes, and circulatory system.

Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease, which means the body's immune system turns against itself for unknown reasons.

Most at risk are women from ages 30-60. Other risk factors are family history, smoking, and obesity.

Early symptom include warm, swollen, stiff, painful joints, especially the fingers and toes; fatigue; and fever. Usually, the same joints on both sides of the body are affected.

If untreated, irreversible joint damage and deformity can occur, with other complications. Early diagnosis can allow preventive treatment to begin as soon as possible.

Diagnosis is made through physical examination; blood tests; and x-ray, CT scan, or MRI.

There is no cure for rheumatoid arthritis, but the disease can be managed to improve quality of life. Treatment includes nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs; steroids; anti-rheumatic drugs; physical therapy; and sometimes surgery to repair the joints.

Repetitive strain injury of the upper arm

Repetitive strain injury of the upper arm is caused by consistent repetitive use.

You do not need treatment, just rest from your overuse. Wearing a brace and physical therapy might be helpful.

Rarity: Uncommon

Top Symptoms: upper arm pain from overuse, upper arm weakness, upper arm numbness

Symptoms that always occur with repetitive strain injury of the upper arm: upper arm pain from overuse

Symptoms that never occur with repetitive strain injury of the upper arm: upper arm injury, severe upper arm pain

Urgency: Self-treatment

Psoriatic arthritis

Psoriatic arthritis is a complication of psoriasis, which causes the skin to become thickened, red, and scaly. Arthritis may appear before or after the psoriasis appears.

Both conditions are autoimmune diseases, where the body attacks itself, and are thought to be caused by genetic and environmental factors.

Most susceptible are people from 30 to 50 years of age with a family history of the disease and who already have psoriasis.

Symptoms include the joints on one or both sides of the body becoming painful, swollen, and hot; swelling and deformity of the fingers and toes; pitted, flaking fingernails; foot pain in the heels and soles; and joint pain in the low back pain.

It is important to seek treatment, as psoriatic arthritis can permanently damage the joints, eyes, and heart.

Diagnosis is made through physical examination, x-rays, and MRI. Blood tests and joint fluid tests can confirm psoriatic arthritis.

Treatment includes over-the-counter, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs; anti-rheumatic medication; immunosuppressants; and steroid injections for the joints. Surgery to replace damaged joints may also be tried.

Polymyalgia rheumatica

Polymyalgia rheumatica (PMR) is a chronic condition that involves inflammation, aching pain, and morning stiffness. It affects muscles close to the middle of the body, including the shoulders, hips, and back. Its cause is not known, but it is more common in people over 50 years old.

You should consider visiting a healthcare provider within the next day to discuss your symptoms. PMR can be evaluated with a review of your symptoms and medical history. Your provider may also perform a blood test. Once diagnosed, it can be treated with prescription steroid medication, which can improve symptoms within one week.

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.

You should visit your primary care physician to confirm the diagnosis and discuss treatment options. You can also reduce pain and swelling with over-the-counter pain relievers, such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), naproxen (Aleve).

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

Contusion of the wrist

A bruise is the damage of the blood vessels that return blood to the heart (the capillaries and veins), which causes pooling of the blood. This explains the blue/purple color of most bruises. Bruises of the wrist are common, often due to minor injuries.

You can treat this at home with R.I.C.E - rest (exercise as tolerated), ice (10-20 minutes at a time), compression (this is optional, with bandage or tape), and elevation.

Rarity: Rare

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

Symptoms that always occur with contusion of the wrist: wrist injury

Urgency: Self-treatment

Buckle fracture of distal radius

A buckle fracture of the wrist, also known as a torus fracture, is a condition that are most common in children aged 5-10 years due to the elasticity of their bones. This fracture occurs when force is applied to the radius (one of the two bones of the forearm), causing the bone to split along the growth plate.

You should visit your primary care physician within the next 24 hours. The treatment for this kind of fracture is immobilization in a cast.

Rarity: Common

Top Symptoms: constant forearm pain, forearm pain from an injury, pain in one forearm, swollen forearm, wrist injury

Symptoms that always occur with buckle fracture of distal radius:forearm pain from an injury, constant forearm pain

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Swollen wrist treatments and relief

At-home treatments and prevention

If your wrist swelling symptoms are the result of mal-positioning, try these self-care tips and suggestions for relief.

  • Practice ergonomics: If you spend much of your day typing at a keyboard or doing activities that put pressure on the wrist, make time for regular breaks. Keep your wrists in a relaxed, neutral position when you type, and consider using foam supports and keyboards that decrease wrist tension.
  • Use protective gear during sports activities: Using wrist guards during activities such as snowboarding, rollerblading, gymnastics, and tennis can help prevent injury.
  • Hazard-proof the home: Make changes in your home that can help prevent falls. Replace slippery rugs and mats, install handrails in the bathroom or shower, and illuminate spaces to prevent accidental trips in the dark.
  • Apply ice then heat: Putting ice on your wrist will help reduce swelling and any pain. Limit the application of ice or heat to 20 minutes at a time. You can do this every couple of hours for relief.

When to see a doctor

See your doctor promptly if your swelling symptoms suggest a serious wrist injury. These symptoms include bruising, shooting pain, numbness, and/or tingling. Depending on your diagnosis, your doctor may suggest the following.

  • Physical therapy or rehabilitation: Your doctor may prescribe stretching exercises or a physical therapy/rehabilitation program to help you restore range of motion, strength, and stability to your wrist.
  • Casts or splints: If you have a broken bone, you may need a cast or splint to help hold the fractured pieces together during the healing process. Even if your wrist injury is due to a sprain, you may need to wear a sprint to protect the parts of the wrist as they heal.
  • Non-inflammatory medications: Your doctor may prescribe this type of medication to combat arthritic processes that are causing swelling.
  • Anticonvulsants (anti-seizure medication): Do not be alarmed, your wrist swelling is most likely not the result of seizures. Some anticonvulsant medications are also used to combat nerve pain that can lead to swelling, such as gabapentin (Neurontin), or carbamazepine (Tegretol).

When it is an emergency

Seek immediate care if:

  • The swelling or pain becomes severe
  • You believe have suffered a serious wrist injury: Such as from a car accident or fall
  • You show signs of infection: Such as fever, feelings of nausea, or vomit
  • You lose feeling in your hand or arm for a prolonged period

Questions your doctor may ask about swollen wrist

  • Is your swollen area warm and red?
  • Did you just suffer from a high impact injury (e.g., a fall, collision, accident or sports trauma)?
  • Any fever today or during the last week?
  • How would you explain the cause of your wrist pain?

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

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The stories shared below are not written by Buoy employees. Buoy does not endorse any of the information in these stories. Whenever you have questions or concerns about a medical condition, you should always contact your doctor or a healthcare provider.
Dr. Rothschild has been a faculty member at Brigham and Women’s Hospital where he is an Associate Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School. He currently practices as a hospitalist at Newton Wellesley Hospital. In 1978, Dr. Rothschild received his MD at the Medical College of Wisconsin and trained in internal medicine followed by a fellowship in critical care medicine. He also received an MP...
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