Thumb Pain: Could it be arthritis?

by | Nov 11, 2022 | Blog

​There are various reasons why one’s thumb could be painful. Having osteoarthritis at the base of the thumb could be one of the reasons you have pain in the thumb. Osteoarthritis is a condition where the cartilage, that normally lines the joint surface, deteriorates. This results in the joint surface becoming rough and the bones rub together causing pain. Any joint of the thumb can be affected, but most commonly the joint at the base of the thumb near the wrist is affected. Osteoarthritis commonly occurs in females over the age of 40, but can be associated with obesity, previous trauma to the joint, and work activities that result in high forces being placed on the thumb joint.

What are the symptoms of thumb arthritis?

  • Pain at the bottom of the thumb and/or wrist. But sometimes the muscles around the bottom of the thumb are painful too. Pain associated with osteoarthritis can vary significantly from person to person. It can be continuous or intermittent. Usually pain and stiffness is worse in the morning and with doing certain tasks that involve pinching and gripping.
  • Swelling of the bottom of the thumb and/or wrist
  • Decreased grip strength
  • Clumsiness or difficulty doing certain tasks, such as turning a key and opening a jar, or frequently dropping things
  • A boney “lump” or enlargement at the base of your thumb. This is not seen in the early stages of the condition.

How will I know if my thumb pain is from osteoarthritis?

  • A hand therapist or hand surgeon will do a clinical examination, get your medical history and discuss your symptoms with you in order  to confirm that osteoarthritis is causing your pain and also rule out some other possible causes of pain in your hand.
  • X-rays of the hand will give a more definitive diagnosis of later stage osteoarthritis, however in the early stages the x-rays often do not show much.

What can be done?

Conservative treatment (non-surgical management) is aimed at easing your pain and helping to protect the joint.

  • A doctor can prescribe you pain medications and do steriod injections to help reduce your pain.
  • Occupational therapy for conservative management involves:
    • Various modalities, such as ice and heat to help manage pain
    • Splinting and taping to give support to the joint and reduce your pain
    • Teaching you how to work with your hands in such a way that you limit joint pain and damage to the joint
    • Provide you assistive devices to make tasks easier
    • Strengthening the thumb muscles to provide better support and function

Surgery is considered in cases where the pain is severe; or the resultant deformity is affecting hand function; or if the patient has not responded to conservative treatment. There are a variety of surgical options for thumb osteoarthritis which include:

  • Performing a fusion  of the joint
  • Performing joint reconstruction using various prosthetic devices
  • Performing joint reconstruction using tendons
  • Cutting out part or all of the arthritic bone (trapeziectomy)

It is best to consult with an orthopaedic surgeon with a special interest in hand surgery to find which solution would best suite you, as each technique has its pro’s and con’s.

The information on this site is not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment

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