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Thumb Arthritis - Pain Overview

by Jaydee Vykoukal, PT, DPT October 04, 2017 0 Comments

Hand holding a palm grips

Thumb arthritis, often known as basal thumb arthritis, is a common condition with the potential to make life complicated. Even a mild case of arthritis in the thumb joint can make simple tasks seem insurmountable. Fortunately, there are a number of thumb arthritis treatment options to alleviate pain and reduce symptoms. Learning more about basal thumb arthritis and how to treat it is the first step. This article covers everything you need to know, helping you find the right solution for your lifestyle.

Types of Arthritis in Thumb

Arthritis in general is caused by the breakdown of cartilage between joints. Arthritis in the thumb is often referred to as basal thumb arthritis or CMC (carpometacarpal) arthritis because it most often affects the joint at the base of the thumb. When arthritis develops in the thumb joint, it usually occurs at the base of the thumb, where the carpometacarpal joint is located.

Basal thumb arthritis affects the movement of the thumb, making actions such as grasping or forming a fist difficult and even painful.

Thumb Osteoarthritis

This is the most common type of thumb arthritis and is also known as CMC (carpometacarpal) arthritis. It typically results from cartilage deterioration around the carpometacarpal joint, where the thumb metacarpal and the trapezium (one of the wrist bones) articulate with each other. Most cases of arthritis in the thumb are linked to osteoarthritis, which is generally brought on by aging and wear and tear of joints and the surrounding cartilage with repetitive use.

Rheumatoid Thumb Arthritis

Although early-stage rheumatoid arthritis (RA) of the thumb may present with symptoms similar to osteoarthritis, RA is the result of an autoimmune disorder. Healthy cartilage is attacked and broken down by harmful antibodies. Rheumatoid arthritis affects multiple joints (often on both sides of the body) and is frequently accompanied by symptoms such as loss of appetite, fatigue, and fever. RA is also associated with heat and swelling that is not usually accompanied by osteoarthritis.

Common Causes of Thumb Arthritis

Anyone can develop arthritis in the thumb, but some people are at higher risk. Here are a few risk factors for thumb arthritis:

  • Genetics

    Some people are genetically predisposed to developing thumb arthritis. The estimated onset time of basal thumb arthritis can usually be determined by family medical history.

  • Gender

    Unfortunately for women, females over the age of 40 accounts for the largest percentage of thumb arthritis sufferers and have been shown to be up to 20 times more likely to develop arthritis in the thumb than their male counterparts!

  • Age

    The older we get, the more likely we are to develop thumb arthritis. Over time, our cartilage—which cushions and lubricates our joints—wears down, eventually leading to arthritis.

Other Contributing Factors to Basal Thumb Arthritis

Apart from hereditary and genetic considerations, the following factors may increase susceptibility.

  • Particularly flexible basal thumb joints, also known as ligamentous laxity or “double joints”
  • Previous injury to the thumb, especially to the CMC joint
  • Unusual stress or excessive use of the thumb, such as heavy use of hand tools

Thumb Arthritis Symptoms

Early signs of basal thumb arthritis, such as pain and stiffness, are often overlooked or ignored until the condition becomes unbearable. Knowing the symptoms of arthritis of the thumb can help you slow the deterioration of the cartilage of the ends of the bones and manage your symptoms better.

  • Thumb Joint Pain

    Tenderness and pain in the thumb joint are often the earliest indicators of an arthritic thumb. This is usually felt at the base of the thumb when performing movements that require grasping or pinching.

  • Stiffness in the Thumb Joint

    As the cartilage between joints wears away, most notice loss of mobility. Without the padding provided by cartilage, eventually bone may grind against bone, resulting in joint stiffness and loss of normal range of motion.

  • Weakness

    Pain, stiffness, and inflammation can quickly lead to a decrease in strength. Tasks requiring a firm grip, such as opening jars or turning doorknobs, become increasingly difficult.

  • Thumb Base or Joint Swelling

    Basal joint arthritis often results in inflammation of the carpometacarpal joint, causing swelling around the base of the thumb and in the wrist. In some cases, swelling may become so pronounced that the base of the thumb appears to have growth. Swelling is much more common with RA than OA.

Diagnosing Thumb Arthritis

For a formal diagnosis, talk to your orthopedic doctor or hand specialist. They will do a formal assessment of your hand, asking about your history and doing a full physical examination. If needed, your doctor can order tests that will help determine what type of arthritis you have, how severe it is, and rule out other complications like a fracture, bone spurs, or ligament damage. These might include blood tests (for RA), an X-ray, or even an MRI.

Managing Thumb Arthritis

Symptoms of thumb arthritis can be managed and unnecessary progression can be reduced with the right treatment options. Treatment might include one or more of the following: anti-inflammatory medications, physical therapy, occupational therapy, hand exercise, bracing or a splint, steroid injections, and ergonomics education. Severe cases might even warrant fusing the bones or a joint replacement. Which options are right for you will depend on your preferences and the severity of symptoms.

While you might not be able to directly prevent or even cure thumb arthritis, you most certainly don't have to live in constant pain and discomfort. Whether you find one method that works for you or use a combination of the thumb arthritis treatments described above, you have plenty of resources to manage your thumb arthritis and get pain relief. Consider finding a good thumb brace, and talk to your doctor about the best treatment options for you.



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Jaydee Vykoukal, PT, DPT
Jaydee Vykoukal, PT, DPT

JayDee Vykoukal is a Doctor of Physical Therapy, owner of the healthy habit platform Health Means Wealth, and freelance medical writer. She loves traveling and spending time with her family in nature. Her passion is helping others continue to participate in the activities they love through education and proper exercise.

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