How do the hands and wrists work?

The movement and power of your hand and wrist are controlled by muscles and tendons:

  • The flexor group, on the inside or front of the arm, control bending of your fingers and wrist – these pass over the front of your wrist and are held in place by a strong fibrous band called the flexor retinaculum, or carpal tunnel ligament.
  • The extensors on the outside or back of your forearm allow the hand to open up.
  • Small muscles in your hand (the lumbricals and interossei) allow fine movement.

 A diagram shoing the normal structure of the hannds and wrist, showing the position of the nerves, arteries and tendons.

The tendons in your hand are covered by a layer of synovium, the same tissue that lines your joints. The tendon and synovium are covered by a tendon sheath, which is a bit like the protective covering on the brake cable of a bicycle.

The sense of touch in your hand is supplied by two main nerves:

  • Your median or carpal tunnel nerve passes under your carpal tunnel ligament and gives feeling to most of your hand (from your thumb to half of your ring finger). It also provides power to muscles at the base of your thumb.
  • Your ulnar or 'funny bone' nerve gives feeling to your little finger and half your ring finger, and it powers all of the other small muscles in your hand.

There are also two arteries (radial and ulnar) that supply blood to your hand. You can feel these on the palm-side of your wrist. The radial artery (nearer your thumb) is often felt to take your pulse. The ulnar artery on the opposite side of your wrist is much more difficult to feel.

Do I need hand and wrist surgery?

Most people with musculoskeletal and arthritis-related problems in their hands or wrists won't need surgery. The decision whether to operate will depend on:

  • how bad your symptoms are (pain or loss of hand function)
  • your needs
  • your response to other treatments, including drugs, splinting and exercise.

Surgery is rarely carried out to improve the look of the hands, although an improvement in their appearance may be a welcome side-effect.

You may feel nervous, stressed or scared if you’ve been told you need surgery. Finding out as much as you can about the operation and understanding the process will help you feel calmer and more in control.

What are common types of hand surgery?

Conditions which may be helped by surgery include carpal tunnel syndrome, trigger finger, Dupuytren’s contracture and arthritis of the base of the thumb.

Carpal tunnel release

Carpal tunnel syndrome occurs when pressure is put on the median nerve as it passes through your wrist under the carpal tunnel ligament. This results in pins and needles and numbness in your fingers. Surgery is sometimes needed to ease pressure on the nerve. This is done by splitting the carpal tunnel ligament under local anaesthetic. You probably won't need to stay overnight in hospital.

After the operation

You may need to wear a bulky bandage on your wrist and hand for a week or two after the operation. Your stitches will be removed within 10–14 days. During this time you’ll be able to use your fingers and thumb, although you should avoid heavy tasks.

It’s important to move your fingers to prevent the nerve and tendons becoming caught up in the scar tissue which may form after your operation. You should recover from the effects of surgery in less than a month, although it may take longer to get all the feeling back, especially if you’ve had carpal tunnel syndrome for a long time. In a small number of people, the scar may ache and be sensitive for some months, but this usually settles without more treatment.

What are common types of wrist surgery?

Arthritis in the wrist joint is common in people with rheumatoid arthritis. Some people may need an operation if the joint is very painful and not responding to other treatment. If your wrist is badly affected, moving your hand up, down and sideways may be very painful and it’ll be very difficult to twist your forearm to place the palm of your hand upwards (this action is called supination).

The two types of wrist surgery are wrist fusion and wrist joint replacement.

Wrist fusion

Wrist fusion may be suggested if your wrist is badly damaged. This is where the bones in your wrist are fixed to the bones in your hand. This reduces pain and increases strength but usually stops you moving your wrist up and down. However, you'll probably find it easier to turn your hand.

After the operation

After the operation, you'll need to stay in hospital for a few days. You’ll need to keep your wrist protected for six to eight weeks in a lightweight cast, but your fingers will be free for light activities such as eating or writing. You may find some tasks are difficult at first but your occupational therapist will help you overcome these problems.

What are the possible advantages of hand and wrist surgery?

The main advantages of hand and wrist surgery can be:

  • long-lasting pain relief
  • better hand function
  • better-looking appearance of hands

What are the disadvantages of hand and wrist surgery?

There can be some disadvantages to hand and wrist surgery:

  • Replacement joints, for example new knuckle joints, aren’t as hard-wearing or long-lasting as natural joints.
  • You'll have scars at the site of the cut (incision).
  • Some operations reduce joint movement.
  • There are possible complications of surgery, for example swelling, stiffness or infection.
  • Occasionally small nerves around the incision can be damaged, leading to patches of numbness.

What are the possible complications?

If you’re generally healthy the risk of a serious complication from an operation is very small. Every possible care is taken to prevent complications, but in a few cases these do happen. For example, some people can develop an infection, so it’s important to speak to your doctor straight away for antibiotic treatment if you notice any signs, including:

  • increased pain
  • redness
  • the affected area feeling warmer than usual
  • an unpleasant smell

Some people may have swelling and stiffness, but physiotherapistsoccupational therapists and hand therapists can help with exercises and other advice.

Bleeding and wound haematoma

A wound haematoma is when blood collects in a wound. It’s normal to have a small amount of blood leak from the wound after any surgery, and usually this stops within a couple of days. But occasionally blood may collect under your skin, causing a swelling. This can cause a larger but temporary leakage from the wound usually a week or so after surgery, or it may require a smaller second operation to remove the blood collection. Drugs like aspirin and antibiotics can increase the risk of haematoma after surgery.

How should I prepare for hand and wrist surgery?

Before the operation you’ll be asked to sign a consent form, which gives your surgeon permission to carry out the treatment. It’s important to ask any questions you may still have at this stage. Ask your doctor, nurse or therapist to explain anything you don’t understand. You should also discuss with your surgeon, anaesthetist or nurse at the pre-admission clinic whether you should stop taking any of your medications or make any changes to the dosage or timings before you have your surgery. Different units may have different advice.

A doctor or nurse will check your general health to make sure there won’t be problems with a general anaesthetic if this is being used.

Read more about types of anaesthetic.

You should have a dental check-up and get any problems dealt with well before your operation. There’s a risk of infection if bacteria from dental problems get into the bloodstream.

You may need to wear splints after the operation, which can make everyday tasks difficult. It’s a good idea to make preparations before the operation. Simple things like choosing clothes with wide arms, stocking up your freezer or arranging to have some help in your home will all make it easier to manage one-handed. It’s a good idea to arrange help with transport, as you’ll probably have to attend hospital regularly to see your doctor or therapist. Your occupational therapist will be able to advise you before your operation if you have any concerns about coping at home afterwards.

What will my recovery from hand and wrist surgery involve?

This will depend on the type of operation and your general health. Ask your surgeon what you should expect after the operation. Planning ahead can make it easier to manage when you return home.

Different surgeons have different ideas about the treatment required after an operation. This is affected by the type of operation and your health. You may need to wear splints to protect the healing tissues and bone, but you should discuss with your surgeon what to expect after the operation. Your nurse, occupational therapistphysiotherapist or hand therapist will be able to offer support.

After you’ve been discharged from hospital an appointment will be made for you to come in as an outpatient to check your progress. Sometimes your GP will help with this aftercare. A district nurse or practice nurse may be asked to remove stitches and change dressings.

If you stopped taking any of your regular drugs or had to alter the dose before the operation, it’s very important to talk to your rheumatologist for advice on when you should restart your medication.