Healthy Body

‘I’m an Orthopedist, and Here’s Why You Shouldn’t Self-Diagnose Your Pesky Wrist Pain’

Photo: Getty Images / spukkato
If your days involve typing and texting, manual labor, or planks and push-ups, you're likely familiar with wrist pain. It can be tempting to self-diagnose it, too. Obviously, if you type all day, it's carpal tunnel, right? And if you plank on the regular, it's just sore and NBD? Wrong. Or at least, not necessarily right. It's actually important not to diagnose wrist pain without a professional.

For starters, the wrist is actually more difficult to diagnose than other parts of the body, even for professionals, says Dennis Cardone, MD, chief of the Division of Primary Care Sports Medicine at NYU Langone Health. "There are eight little bones [in the wrist], and there are certainly multiple tendons and ligaments traveling from all these little bones to one another and then to the big bones," he says. "So, a wrist diagnosis is not always as clear and straightforward as [it is with] other parts of the body because there are such small, multiple parts."

Given this complexity, there are more potential wrist pain causes than you may think, though Dr. Cardone acknowledges that some are far more prevalent than others. The most common, he says, is a muscle or tendon injury. "It's very common for people to get a tendonitis of their wrist without trauma or injury," he says. "It just kind of sneaks up on them, especially if they're doing any kind of repetitive activity [e.g. weight training, UPS package delivery, computer work]." It's also quite common for those who do a lot of weight-bearing exercises, e.g. push-ups, to get ligament sprains in their wrists. "This is because the wrist is absolutely not made to bear weight like this," Dr. Cardone explains.

Carpal tunnel—which results from a pinched nerve in the wrist—is another common culprit of wrist pain and discomfort, and this can be caused by overuse via, say, typing, or even something as seemingly innocuous sleep posture. "Our wrist is very bent when we sleep [in the fetal position], and that also is a risk factor," Dr. Cardone says. 

These are just a few of the ways your wrist could be injured, but these types of aches and pains should not be ignored as they can lead to long-term consequences. Still, many of us try to avoid going to the doctor whenever possible, so Dr. Cardone understands that it's not always reasonable to expect an individual to get every ache examined. With that said, he advises seeking professional help for pain for any ache, pain, or discomfort lasting more than two weeks—and potentially even more immediate care for pain caused by a fall or other accident.

"There are certain bones in the wrist, and one in particular, where if it gets fractured or broken, and if the treatment isn't started early on, it has a difficult time healing," he says. "So it could be a complicated course [of treatment], ultimately." And some wrist injuries may not seem "scary" to someone early on—especially compared to a similar injury to another part of the body, where a resultant deformity is obvious—but ignoring it can lead to chronic long-term pain and, potentially, early arthritis. "That's why too often, wrist and hand injuries aren't taken seriously enough," he says.

If you're experiencing discomfort from fitness-related activities, e.g. yoga poses, it may not be as necessary to get it checked out unless it's severe; however, Dr. Cardone does advise ceasing those weight-bearing exercises if you're feeling aches, pains, or discomfort as a result. Try modifications as advised by your instructor, or use a push-up bar or something similar to relieve some of the pressure on your wrists. And once you stop the offending exercise, you shouldn't expect to recover within a few weeks and resume as before; Dr. Cardone says it typically takes months before you can comfortably return to such weight-bearing exercises.

Finally, he says, the calculus on when to see a professional for your wrist pain changes with age. If you're over 50 and experiencing chronic wrist issues, there's a good chance there's arthritis in part of the wrist, so you may want to consult a professional ASAP. And if you're in this age group and experience wrist pain after a fall, it's even more critical you get medical help at the earliest opportunity.

You can certainly start by having your primary care physician check you out, but Dr. Cardone reinforces how difficult it is to diagnose wrist injuries, and says that if even specialists struggle to do so, your primary care physician is likely not your best bet. Instead, he recommends an orthopedist and, if possible, one that specializes in the hand and wrist. But any medical help is good help, with one exception: Google. Where the wrist is concerned, you and the internet are not qualified diagnosticians.

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