Wrist and Hand Examination


1024px-1121 Intrinsic Muscles of the Hand Superficial sin.png

The hand and wrist is form a group of complex, delicately balanced joints which are considered the most active portion of the upper extremity. Optimal overall function is important to so many activities of daily living. A hand and wrist examination done in a structured manner will help to facilitate the most appropriate working diagnosis for treatment. Diagnosing hand and wrist conditions is often difficult and for this reason, bilateral comparison can be useful[1]

Subjective History

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 e.g. fall on an outstretched hand
  • Insidious or sudden injury.
  • Handedness, occupation, previous injury and fracture history
  • Location of the pain
  • Presence and location of numbness, pins and needles and/or tingling.
  • Aggravating and relieving factors.
  • Functional limitations.
  • Were any diagnostic test/imaging performed and what were the results?

Objective Examination

Screen Proximal Joints

Screen proximal structures to determine if they are involved in the patient’s clinical presentation. i.e. Cervical joints, Shoulder, Elbow.


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
  • Deformities
  • Attitude of the hand

Palmar Surface

  • Creases
  • Thenar and Hypothenar Eminence
  • Arched Framework
  • Hills and Valleys

Dorsal surface

  • Hills and Valleys
  • Height of metacarpal heads
  • Deformities.
Swan-neck deformity.jpg

Ganglions - Cystic structure that arises from synovial sheath

Boutonniere Deformity

Swan Neck Deformity (see image)

Osteoarthritis - Heberden’s nodes: DIP, Bouchard’s nodes: PIP

Dupuytren’s Contractures

RA Hand 2.png

Rheumatoid Arthritis - MCP swelling, Swan neck deformities, Ulnar deviation at MCP joints, Nodules along tendon sheaths.[1] (see R)

Muscle wasting due to nerve disfunction

Muscle wasting in the thenar eminence, first three and fingers, and half the fourth fingers on radial side of the hand.

Common muscles that are affected by radial nerve entrapment are primarily on the dorsal aspect of the hand.

Functional Tests

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)

Radial Styloid


1st MC/Trapezium jt


Lister’s Tubercle

Ulnar Styloid


Wrist extensor compartments (numbered).png

Hook of Hamate

Guyon’s Tunnel[1]

Palpation of Hand

Bone - Metacarpals - 5, Phalanges - 14, Palpate for swelling, tenderness

Soft tissues

  • 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)[1]

Neurologic Assessment

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

Movement Testing

Digit ROM Exercise Handout.jpg

If patient is pain free to end range, the physical therapist may choose to apply overpressure.


  1. Flexion/Extension
  2. Radial/Ulnar deviation
  • 1st CMC
  1. Extension
  2. Abduction
  3. Opposition

Metacarpal-phalangeal (MCP)

  1. Flexion
  2. Extension
  3. Abduction/Adduction

Inter-phalangeal (IP)/Distal IP/Proximal IP

  1. Flexion
  2. Extension

Strength Testing

  1. Wrist flexion/extension
  2. Forearm pronation and supination
  3. Grip strength
  4. Key and pinch grip strength

Special Tests

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)

Neurodynamic tests

  1. Median nerve bias (Upper limb tension test 1 [ULTT] /UpperLimb Tension Test 2a)
  2. Radial nerve bias (ULTT2b)
  3. Ulnar nerve bias (ULTT3)

Carpal tunnel syndrome (Carpal compression test; Tinel’s test; Wrist-ratio index)

Scapholunate instability (Scaphoid Shift test)

DeQuervain’s syndrome (Finkelstein Test)

Red Flags

Red Flag Framework Level Concern.JPG

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.

  • Heat
  • Swelling
  • Pain
  • Redness
  • Inflammation


Top five physical findings which are most useful in screening for wrist fracture.[5] - Localized tenderness, Pain on active motion, Pain on passive motion, Pain on grip, Pain on supination

Any one of the above findings associated with a history of trauma should be sent for radiographs

Additional potentially serious conditions

Possible Diagnosis Examples from Examination

Outcome Measures


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).[6]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 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
  2. 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)
  3. Wikimedia commons Wrist extensor compartments Available from:https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Wrist_extensor_compartments_(numbered).PNG
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.