Painful Hand – OSCE Case

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Introduction

A 54-year-old woman visits her GP due to a painful hand. Work through the case to reach a diagnosis.

UK Medical Licensing Assessment (UKMLA)

This clinical case maps to the following UKMLA presentations:

  • Acute joint pain/stiffness
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History

Presenting complaint

“Doctor I have an awful burning sensation in my right hand.”

History of presenting complaint

Where is the burning sensation?

β€œLike half of my palm and fingers towards the thumb-side”

When did this burning sensation start?

β€œIt’s been going on for about 3 weeks now and has gradually been getting worse”

Is it always there?

β€œIt comes on and off, but it’s been coming on more often and lasting longer recently”

Do you have any other symptoms?

β€œYes, sometimes the same parts of my hand feel numb”

Does anything make it better?

β€œI’ve noticed that shaking my hand can relieve the feeling for a bit”

Does anything make it worse?

β€œWhen I’m using my hand for a long time the burning sensation feels worse and I can feel the numbness coming on”

Other parts of the history

Besides the burning sensation, have you felt pain in your hand?

β€œNo”

Have you felt like your hand or fingers have been getting weaker recently, or have felt more clumsy than usual?

β€œNot really, but the numbness can make it difficult to grip things”

Have you noticed any stiffness in the joints of your fingers or wrist when moving them?

β€œNo”

🚩 Have you noticed any changes in the appearance of your hand, like redness or deformities in its shape?

β€œNo”

🚩 Has there been any bleeding or oozing from your hand?

β€œNo”

🚩 Have you injured your hand or experienced physical trauma to any aspect of your hand recently?

β€œNo”

Have you fractured any part of your hand in the past?

β€œNo”

Do any of these symptoms apply to your other hand?

β€œNo”

🚩 Do you have pain anywhere else, especially your neck, shoulder, arm or elbow?

β€œNo”

Have you had an infection recently?

β€œNo”

🚩 Do you feel weak anywhere else in your body?

β€œNo”

🚩 Have you noticed any weight loss recently which has been unintentional?

β€œNo”

🚩 Do you feel like you have a temperature or fever?

β€œNo”

Past medical history:

  • Type 2 diabetes – well controlled on metformin

Drug history:

  • Metformin
  • Does not take medications that could cause peripheral neuropathy

Social history:

  • Low alcohol intake; smoker (15 cigarettes/day)
  • Does not struggle with activities of daily living involving her hands
  • Does not perform activities that put her at risk of repetitive strain injury; does not play sports

Family history:

  • Mother has type 2 diabetes


Clinical examination

Examination findings

Hand and wrist musculoskeletal examination:

  • No scars or deformities observed
  • Both hands are warm on palpation – temperature not of concern
  • Radial and ulnar pulses are present and strong
  • Thenar and hypothenar eminences – no muscle wasting
  • Paraesthesia in the right thumb, index finger, middle finger, radial half of the ring finger and radial half of palm except for thenar eminence; left-hand sensation intact
  • Joint palpation – no tenderness or irregularities in any of the joints examined (including the elbow joint)
  • Complete range of movement in all joints bilaterally; passive and active movements are normal
  • Function – power grip and pincer grip intact; able to pick up, transfer and drop pen

Upper limb neurological examination:

  • Tone – normal
  • Power – 5/5 on the MRC muscle power assessment scale in both upper limbs
  • Reflexes – biceps, supinator and triceps reflexes are intact
  • Sensation – light touch, pin-prick, proprioception and vibration sensations affected in the distribution described earlier
  • Coordination – finger-to-nose and dysdiadochokinesia tests unremarkable

Cervical spine examination:

  • No scars or deformities observed; no evidence of trauma
  • No misalignment or tenderness on palpation of cervical spinal processes and paraspinal muscles
  • Active and passive movements are normal, including flexion, extension, lateral flexion and rotation

The median nerve provides sensory innervation to most of the palm towards the radial side, including the thenar eminence, thumb, index, middle finger and medial half of the ring finger, as well as the distal halves of the same digits on the dorsum.


Investigations

Given the most likely diagnosis, investigations are not necessary at this stage. Instead, initial management should be trialled first.

However, you might consider the following investigations in cases that do not respond to initial management or in those for whom further management is being considered (e.g. surgery):

  • Nerve conduction studies and electromyography – assess peripheral nerve integrity
  • Ultrasound scan – identify local structural abnormalities
  • MRI scan – alternative to ultrasound; also useful in identifying spinal disease


Diagnosis

Those in bold are the most likely, but a range of other potential differentials are shown using the VINDICATE acronym:

  • Vascular: transient ischaemic attack or stroke
  • Inflammatory & Infectious: carpal tunnel syndrome, De Quervain’s tenosynovitis, lateral epicondylitis (tennis elbow), proximal median neuropathy, ulnar nerve compression/entrapment
  • Neoplastic:
  • Degenerative: cervical radiculopathy, motor neurone disease
  • Idiopathic: carpal tunnel syndrome, proximal median neuropathy, ulnar nerve compression/entrapment
  • Congenital:
  • Autoimmune:
  • Traumatic: carpal tunnel syndrome, cervical radiculopathy, lateral epicondylitis (tennis elbow), proximal median neuropathy, ulnar nerve compression/entrapment
  • Endocrine: diabetic neuropathy

The patient’s presentation is typical of carpal tunnel syndrome, mainly the gradual onset and intermittent nature of the burning sensation in a unilateral distribution corresponding to the areas covered by the median nerve (thumb, index, middle finger and medial half of ring finger).

The pain is also worse at night, a typical feature of carpal tunnel syndrome. Importantly, the patient describes numbness which, alongside the pain, is relieved by shaking the hand.

The patient has type 2 diabetes, which can predispose to carpal tunnel syndrome.Β Tinel’s and Phalen’s tests can be performed to help confirm this diagnosis.


Management

Seeing as the patient has presented early with mild symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome, a conservative approach is best followed at first. Typically, after lifestyle changes (such as minimising exacerbating activities), a wrist splint worn at night may help the patient sleep and improve their symptoms.

In this patient, it is also worth optimising their type 2 diabetes treatment to improve their outcomes in terms of recurrence and severity of symptoms

According to NICE, you might consider referral to a specialist if any of these apply:

  • Unclear diagnosis
  • Persistent symptoms despite trying conservative treatment(s)
  • Progressive symptoms/severe disease affecting activities of daily living
  • Recurrent/persistent symptoms after carpal tunnel surgery

Specialists that you might consider referring to include a rheumatologist, orthopaedic surgeon or neurologist who might carry out nerve conduction studies and/or carpal tunnel surgery.


Complications

The main complications of carpal tunnel syndrome are:

  • Difficulties with activities of daily living
  • Sleep disruption due to symptoms (pain, paraesthesia)
  • Weakness and/or muscle wasting in the affected hand
  • Reduced fine motor function in the affected hand
  • Untreated, long-term carpal tunnel syndrome can lead to severe nerve damage


Editor

Dr Jess Speller


References

  1. NICE Clinical Knowledge Summaries (CKS).Β Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. Available from: [LINK]
  2. BMJ Best Practice.Β Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. Available from: [LINK]
  3. Patient.info.Β Carpal Tunnel Syndrome and Median Nerve Lesions. Available from:Β [LINK]

 

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