Causes of Pain & Stiffness in the Wrist

If the wrist joint becomes painful or stiff it can interfere with the ability to work on a computer, or at another job that requires repetitive use of the hands and wrists. It can also limit the ability to participate in sports such as tennis or golf. Since there are many causes of pain and stiffness in the wrist, it is important to obtain an accurate diagnosis. Then the right treatment approach can be chosen to help improve these symptoms.

Is This an Emergency?

If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, seek emergency treatment immediately.

Carpal Tunnel Syndrome

Carpal tunnel syndrome is a common cause of pain and stiffness in the wrists. It occurs when the nerves that travel through the wrist become compressed, states the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Along with pain and stiffness, there may be numbness, tingling sensations and weakness in the hand. In many cases, there is a predisposition to this condition as some people are born with a narrower opening in the wrists than others. This limits the space through which nerves can travel. Repetitive wrist motions during computer use and other activities may exacerbate the problem. Carpal tunnel syndrome can also occur after an injury. A physical exam and nerve conduction tests can be used to confirm a diagnosis.


According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis are the most common types of arthritis that affect the wrist. Osteoarthritis occurs when the cartilage between the bones of the wrist begins to wear away. This can happen during the normal process of aging, or can be the result of an injury. Rheumatoid arthritis occurs when the synovial lining of the joint becomes inflamed and swollen. Osteoarthritis can occur in just one wrist, while rheumatoid arthritis usually affects both wrists. Gout, which is a buildup of uric acid in the blood is another form of arthritis that occurs in the wrist. A physical exam, x-rays, scans and blood tests can all be used to determine if arthritis is causing wrist pain and stiffness. Arthritis of the wrists usually also causes weakness and reduced range of motion.

Wrist Sprain

All the joints, including the wrist, contain ligaments that connect the bones to each other. If the ligament becomes stretched, irritated or torn, it is called a sprain. The American Society for Surgery of the Hand claims that sprains are classified based on severity. A grade 1 occurs when there is an injury to the ligament, grade 2 means there is a partial tear, and grade 3 is diagnosed when there is a complete tear. A sprain can occur due to an injury that forces the hand back, such as when breaking a fall. It can also be the result of overusing the wrist joint such as when swinging a club, racket or any activity that requires repetitive bending of the wrist. A physical exam, x-rays and MRI's can be used to see if a sprain is causing the symptoms. Along with pain and stiffness, sprains often cause swelling and joint instability.

Wrist Tendonitis

Along with ligaments, the wrist joint also has tendons that connect the muscles to the bones. Just like ligaments, they can become overstretched or inflamed causing a condition called tendonitis. In most cases, wrist tendonitis is caused by overusing the wrist while participating in a sport that involves a lot of throwing, catching or swinging. It can also be the result of too much typing, or from another occupation that requires a lot of wrist motion. With wrist tendonitis, the joint will be tender to the touch, swollen and stiff. A physical exam can help to diagnose this condition.