Diagnosis

During the physical exam, your doctor may:

  • Check your wrist for tenderness, swelling or deformity
  • Ask you to move your wrist to check for a decrease in your range of motion
  • Assess your grip strength and forearm strength

In some cases, your doctor may suggest imaging tests, arthroscopy or nerve tests.

Imaging tests

  • X-rays. This is the most commonly used test for wrist pain. Using a small amount of radiation, X-rays can reveal bone fractures or signs of osteoarthritis.
  • CT. This scan can provide more-detailed views of the bones in your wrist and may spot fractures that don't show up on X-rays.
  • MRI. This test uses radio waves and a strong magnetic field to produce detailed images of your bones and soft tissues. For a wrist MRI, you may be able to insert your arm into a smaller device instead of a whole-body MRI machine.
  • Ultrasound. This simple, noninvasive test can help visualize tendons, ligaments and cysts.

Arthroscopy

If imaging test results are inconclusive, your doctor may perform an arthroscopy, a procedure in which a pencil-sized instrument called an arthroscope is inserted into your wrist through a small incision in your skin. The instrument contains a light and a tiny camera, which projects images onto a television monitor. Arthroscopy is considered the gold standard for evaluating long-term wrist pain. In some cases, your doctor may repair wrist problems through the arthroscope.

Nerve tests

Your doctor might order an electromyogram (EMG) if carpal tunnel syndrome is suspected. This test measures the tiny electrical discharges produced in your muscles. A needle-thin electrode is inserted into the muscle, and its electrical activity is recorded when the muscle is at rest and when it's contracted. Nerve conduction studies also are performed as part of an EMG to assess if the electrical impulses are slowed in the region of the carpal tunnel.

Treatment

Treatments for wrist problems vary greatly based on the type, location and severity of the injury, as well as on your age and overall health.

Medications

Over-the-counter pain relievers, such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB, others) and acetaminophen (Tylenol, others), may help reduce wrist pain. Stronger pain relievers are available by prescription.

Therapy

A physical therapist can implement specific treatments and exercises for wrist injuries and tendon problems. If you need surgery, your physical therapist can also help with rehabilitation after the operation. You may also benefit from having an ergonomic evaluation that addresses workplace factors that may be contributing to wrist pain.

If you have a broken bone in your wrist, the pieces will need to be aligned so that the bone can heal properly. A cast or splint can help hold the bone fragments together while they heal.

If you have sprained or strained your wrist, you may need to wear a splint to protect the injured tendon or ligament while it heals. Splints are particularly helpful with overuse injuries caused by repetitive motions.

Surgery

In some cases, surgery may be necessary. Examples include:

  • Bone fractures. In some cases, surgery may be necessary to stabilize bone fractures to permit healing. A surgeon may need to connect the fragments of bone together with metal hardware.
  • Carpal tunnel syndrome. If your symptoms are severe, you may need to have the ligament that forms the roof of the tunnel cut open to relieve the pressure on the nerve.
  • Tendon or ligament repair. Surgery is sometimes necessary to repair tendons or ligaments that have ruptured.

Lifestyle and home remedies

Wrist pain doesn't always require medical treatment. For a minor wrist injury, apply ice and wrap your wrist with an elastic bandage.

Preparing for your appointment

Although you may initially consult your family physician, he or she may refer you to a doctor who specializes in joint disorders (rheumatologist), sports medicine or even an orthopedic surgeon.

What you can do

You may want to write a list that includes:

  • Detailed descriptions of your symptoms
  • Information about medical problems you've had or have
  • Information about the medical problems of your parents or siblings
  • All the medications and dietary supplements you take
  • Questions you want to ask the doctor

What to expect from your doctor

Your doctor may ask some of the following questions:

  • When did your symptoms begin?
  • Do they seem to be connected to a recent injury?
  • Does any particular wrist motion trigger your pain?
  • Is there any numbness or tingling in your hand?
  • Are you right-handed or left-handed?
  • What is your occupation? Does it require a lot of wrist motion?
  • Do you participate in any sports or hobbies that put stress on your wrist?