The Human Wrist

By Jonathan Blood Smyth

The wrist-hand complex is a highly complicated tool which allows for the precise use of the hand and its very important role in human function, with the wrist a vital link in this process. The shoulder and scapula allow crude arm positioning, the elbow allows the distance from the body to be varied, the forearm sets the angle at which the wrist will be positioned and the wrist finishes off the last detail of hand positioning. As the joints get closer to the hand the smaller and more precise their movements.

The wrist bones are a grouping of eight small bones called the carpal bones and which are arranged in two rows between the metacarpals and the ulna and radius of the forearm. From the end row of carpal bones the metacarpals run down the hand to the junction with the phalanges at the knuckles, making a mobile central hand area. Running virtually parallel to each other and being long and narrow the metacarpals can alter their positioning, either becoming flattened to support something large or rotated round to cup the palm for increased grasping ability.

The neat, close group of carpal bones allows the wrist to perform a conical range of movement facing forwards, with a full 360 degree rotation possible. The bones can move as a group or to some degree individually to permit fine control of the thumb, fingers and hand. The rows are somewhat irregular but on average there are two bones in line with each metacarpal between it and the forearm. This pattern creates a series of joints in line with each other and permits a great variety of individual movements to translate into precise and varied positioning.

In the human hand the most specialised and most useful part is the thumb. Apes do not have the "opposable thumb" which humans possess and which allows us to perform the highly controlled manual activities we need to. Unlike the metacarpals of the palm, which all lie in one plane, the metacarpal of the thumb lies away from this plane and is rotatable across the palm of the hand, allowing the thumb to grip against the fingers. The joint between the thumb metacarpal and its carpal bone is unusual in structure and confers much specialised movement.

The movements of the carpal bones can be in unison in small amounts as they move together to allow a movement to occur. As the hands move small amplitudes of movement occur between the individual carpal bones and the carpal rows. The metacarpals are able to rotate around their long axes which allows the palm to be curled into a cupped position. As the palm moulds round to assist gripping it also allows the fingers to align so that they can effectively grip at the correct angle. Any loss of the accessory movements of the carpals and metacarpals can reduce the ability of the hand to function adequately.

The heavy use of the hands in manual work such as lifting and moving large objects, manipulating heavy machines and pulling ropes can damage the function of the wrist. High mechanical forces are generated when the hand grips something hard, squeezing the wrist bones between the metacarpal bones and the radius and ulna of the forearm. This can allow a reduction of the accessory movements between the individual wrist bones. The lunate bone can be moved from its position with painful consequences if the wrist is extended with force.

A forced extension movement is most commonly caused by a fall on the outstretched hand (FOOSH), which if severe enough can cause a fracture of the end of the radius and ulna, a so-called Colles fracture. The major injury, typically seen in older women, is the fracture but the fall also sprains the wrist, causing significant soft tissue injury to the carpal region. The bones typically heal well in five to six weeks but the hand may be painful, weak and difficult to use for much longer, secondary to the disruption of the subtle relationship between the carpal bones. - 32188

About the Author:

Sign Up for our Free Newsletter

Enter email address here