Wrist and Hand Examination
- 1 Introduction
- 2 Subjective History
- 3 Objective Examination
- 4 Possible Diagnosis Examples from Examination
- 5 Outcome Measures
- 6 Conclusion
- 7 References
The hand and wrist is a series of complex, delicately balanced joints. Function is integral to every act of daily living. It is the most active portion of the upper extremity. A hand and wrist examination done in a structured manner will lead to a correct diagnosis. Remembering that the hand and wrist examination will take in and appreciate that:
•Has the unprotected joints
• Is extremely vulnerable to injury
• Involves a difficult and complex examination
• The diagnosis is often vague (If no fracture = “wrist strain or sprain”)
• A bilateral comparison is useful
Thorough history taking is an important first step in treating the patient. Each physical therapist will develop their own style and technique, but a good interview will include the basic elements discussed below:
- Mechanism of the injury - How the injury occurred and what was the cause eg fall on an outstretched hand
- Insidious or sudden injury.
- Handedness, occupation, previous injury
- Location of the pain
- Presence and location of numbness and tingling.
- Aggravating and relieving factors.
- Functional limitations.
- Were any diagnostic test/imaging performed and what were the results?
Screen Proximal Joints
Start by watching this 8 minute video of a wrist and hand examination.
Observe upper extremity as the patient enters the room.
- Examine hand in function
- Attitude of the hand
- Thenar and Hypothenar Eminence
- Arched Framework
- Hills and Valleys
- Hills and Valleys
- Height of metacarpal heads
Ganglions - Cystic structure that arises from synovial sheath
Swan Neck Deformity (see image)
Osteoarthritis - Heberden’s nodes: DIP, Bouchard’s nodes: PIP
Muscle wasting due to nerve disfunction
- Median Nerve (depending on area impingement)
Muscle wasting in the thenar eminence, first three and fingers, and half the fourth fingers on radial side of the hand.
- Radial Nerve (depending on area of impingement)
Common muscles that are affected by radial nerve entrapment are primarily on the dorsal aspect of the hand.
- Ulnar Nerve (depending on area of impingement)
Muscle wasting in the hand for the ulnar nerve occurs primarily in the fifth and half the fourth fingers, in the hypothenar area. The muscles that are affected are:
Goals - to obtain and quantify an asterisk to assess/reassess after the intervention is performed. eg turning doorknob, holding a key, initial pain-free grip or key grip, opening a jar, turning on tap, lifting saucepan. Grip strength can also be a good reliable tool to use (available cheaply on internet).
Wrist (Dorsal to Volar)
1st MC/Trapezium jt
Hook of Hamate
Palpation of Hand
Bone - Metacarpals - 5, Phalanges - 14, Palpate for swelling, tenderness
- 6 Dorsal Compartments – Transport extensor tendons See image at R
1st compartment- De quervains
2nd compartment - Intersection syndrome
|Compartment 1 (Most radial)||Compartment 2||Compartment 3||Compartment 4||Compartment 5||Compartment 6 (Most ulnar)|
|Abductor pollicis longus||Extensor carpi radialis longus||Extensor pollicis longus||Extensor indicis||Extensor digiti minimi||Extensor carpi ulnaris|
|Extensor pollicis brevis||Extensor carpi radialis brevis||Extensor digitorum communis|
2 Palmar Tunnels – Transport nerves, arteries, flexor tendons
Palmar Aspect - Pisiform and Hamate, Tunnel of Guyon, Carpal Tunnel, Flexor Carpi Radialis, Flexor Carpi Ulnaris
Palm of Hand -
Thenar Eminence (3 muscles of thumb, Atrophy seen in carpal tunnel syndrome)
Hypothenar Eminance (3 muscles of little finger, Atrophy with ulnar nerve compression)Palmar Aponeurosis (Dupuytren’s Contracture)
Upper Extremity Nerve Palpation:
Goal To reproduce symptoms if a peripheral nerve entrapment diagnosis is suspected
To palpate the 3 major nerves of the upper extremity refer to the figure below.
- Median: Position patient supine, 90 degrees of shoulder abduction and elbow extension. Palpate medially to the bicep (mid humeral). Palpate distally at wrist.
- Radial: Upper arm (0 degrees of abduction, palpate proximal to the lateral epicondyle), distal radius, and snuffbox
- Ulnar: Upper arm (medial mid humeral area, shoulder 90 degrees of abduction, elbow 120 degrees of flexion) and cubital tunnel
Reflexes - C5-C7
Myotomes - C5-T1
Dermatomes - C5-T1
If patient is pain free to end range, the physical therapist may choose to apply overpressure.
- Radial/Ulnar deviation
- 1st CMC
Inter-phalangeal (IP)/Distal IP/Proximal IP
- Wrist flexion/extension
- Forearm pronation and supination
- Grip strength
- Key and pinch grip strength
The physical therapist may elect to perform various special tests during the physical examination of an individual with wrist or hand complaints. Below are potential tests that may be utilized categorized by possible diagnosis or tissue involvement.
Scaphoid Fracture clinical examination (Anatomical snuff box tenderness; Scaphoid tubercle tenderness; Axial loading of the thumb)
- Median nerve bias (Upper limb tension test 1 [ULTT] /UpperLimb Tension Test 2a)
- Radial nerve bias (ULTT2b)
- Ulnar nerve bias (ULTT3)
This section deals with screening the patient for possible serious pathologies that could cause wrist or hand pain. These conditions could warrant a referral, or consultation.
Any one of the above findings associated with a history of trauma should be sent for radiographs
Additional potentially serious conditions
- Scapholunate instability
- Rheumatoid Arthritis
- Lyme disease
- Peripheral Vascular Disease
- Peripheral Neuropathy
- Hx of trauma, fall on outstretched hand (FOOSH). Older age, >65. The risk is same for men/women
- Upper extremity nerve injuries involving :Median; Radial; Ulnar
Possible Diagnosis Examples from Examination
- Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
- Anterior Interosseous Syndrome
- Posterior Interousseous Syndrome
- Distal Radial Fractures
- First Carpometacarpal Osteoarthritis
- Hand and Wrist Osteoarthritis
- DeQuervain Syndrome
- Radial Tunnel Syndrome
- Compression of the Ulnar nerve at Guyon’s canal
- Non-specific wrist pain (mechanical wrist pain)
- Trigger Finger
- Complex Regional Pain Syndrome
- Triangular Fibrocartilaginous Complex
- Dupuytren’s Contracture
- Grip Strength, functional test.
- Quick DASH
- Symptom Severity Scale
- Patient Specific Functional Scale
Hand and wrist complaints are common presentations to physiotherapy clinics. Some practices are special "hand" clinics. Being able to perform a thorough examination is vital. Common acute problems include fractures, tendonitis, and trigger finger.
- Common chronic problems include carpal tunnel syndrome, ganglions and arthritis.
- There are two conditions commonly examined – osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis (be familiar with the changes that each of these conditions can cause).
- Shane Cass, DO UNM Primary Care Sports Medicine Clinical Examination of the Hand and Wrist Available from:http://unmfm.pbworks.com/w/file/fetch/50237999/HandandWristExammaster.pdf
- Ascension Via Christi Joint-by-Joint Musculoskeletal Physical Exam: Hand and Wrist Available from:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DxW0rodKOGs (last accessed 29.3.2020)
- Wikimedia commons Wrist extensor compartments Available from:https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Wrist_extensor_compartments_(numbered).PNG
- Schmid AB, Brunner F, Luomajoki H, et al. Reliability of clinical tests to evaluate nerve function and mechanosensitivity of the upper limb peripheral nervous system. BMC Musculoskelet Disord. 2009;10:11.
- Cevik AA, Gunal I, Manisali M, et al. Evaluation of physical findings in acute wrist trauma in the emergency department. Ulus Travma Acil Cerrahi Derg. 2003;9(4):257-261.
- Medistudents Wrist and hand examination Available from:https://www.medistudents.com/en/learning/osce-skills/musculoskeletal/hand-wrist-examination/ (last accessed 29.3.2020)
1. Cevik AA, Gunal I, Manisali M, et al. Evaluation of physical findings in acute wrist trauma in the emergency department. Ulus Travma Acil Cerrahi Derg. 2003;9(4):257-261.
2. Wainner RS, Fritz JM, Irrgang JJ, Boninger ML, Delitto A, Allison S. Reliability and diagnostic accuracy of the clinical examination and patient self-report measures for cervical radiculopathy. Spine (Phila Pa 1976). 2003;28(1):52-62.
3. Schmid AB, Brunner F, Luomajoki H, et al. Reliability of clinical tests to evaluate nerve function and mechanosensitivity of the upper limb peripheral nervous system. BMC Musculoskelet Disord. 2009;10:11.