Thumb arthritis & pain: Causes and treatments

Thumb arthiritisThumb arthritis can cause pain in the thumb joint and is the most common form of osteoarthritis that affects the hands. This pain may occur in the basal joint, where the fleshy part of your thumb meets your wrist and can make everyday tasks difficult. Find out more about the symptoms and causes of thumb joint arthritis, as well as how it is diagnosed and treated, by reading below.

Thumb arthritis symptoms

Some of the most common symptoms of thumb arthritis are decreased grip strength, decreased range of motion, and swelling and pain that radiates throughout the hand and not just around the thumb. These symptoms can be especially irritating as they interfere with your ability to perform simple tasks like turning door knobs and opening jars.

Thumb arthritis: Causes and risk factors


Most cases of thumb arthritis occur due to aging, but it may also be caused by previous injuries to the joint. Thumb arthritis is a result of the cartilage between the bones deteriorating over time, creating a rougher surface. Without the smooth cushioning of cartilage, the bones grind together, creating friction and joint damage.

Some people are more prone to developing thumb arthritis, most notably:

  • Females
  • Those aged 40 or older
  • Obese individuals
  • Those with hereditary conditions like joint ligament laxity and malformed joints
  • Those who have injured their thumb joint previously
  • People who partake in activities or have a job that puts stress on the thumb joint
  • People with diseases that alter the normal structure and function of cartilage

Diagnosis of arthritis of the thumb joint

To diagnose whether your joint pain is due to thumb arthritis, your doctor will perform a physical exam. You may be asked about your symptoms, and your doctor will look for swelling and lumps around the joint. He or she may also physically test the thumb by holding the basal joint while moving your thumb with some pressure against the wrist bone.

During this process, your doctor will be paying attention to whether this produces a grinding noise, gritty feeling, or pain, which may indicate that the cartilage has been eroded. X-rays may also be ordered to confirm the diagnosis, as they may display signs of thumb arthritis like bone spurs, worn-down cartilage, and loss of joint space.

Thumb arthritis treatment

There are a variety of treatment options available for treating thumb joint arthritis that varies based on the severity of your condition. Some of the simpler treatments include:

Exercises: A doctor or physical therapist may recommend a set of hand exercises to ease symptoms and improve your range of motion.

Medication: Over-the-counter medications and anti-inflammatories like ibuprofen and acetaminophen can temporarily ease thumb joint pain associated with arthritis, though they should always be used as directed by the label and after consulting your doctor or pharmacist. There are also prescription medications your doctor may suggest to manage your symptoms, including corticosteroid injections to the thumb joint that can help bring down any swelling and relieve pain.

Splints: Your doctor may also suggest a splint, known as a long opponens or a thumb spica splint, that is worn overnight and stabilizes the joint position while relieving any pressure or stress on it.


Surgery: If none of the above treatments provide adequate relief, there are surgical options to restore your thumb’s range of motion and strength, as well as relieve pain. The most common surgeries performed for thumb joint arthritis are a trapeziectomy, where a wrist bone involved in the thumb joint is removed; an osteotomy, where the bones of the joint are realigned to the correct position; a joint fusion, where the bones are fused to improve stability and reduce pain; and a joint replacement, where the joint is completely replaced with tendon grafts.

Thumb arthritis is a common ailment that comes with age, and while there is no cure, there are many diagnostic techniques and treatments available to effectively manage symptoms so that you may continue to lead a normal life. If you are experiencing symptoms like swelling or pain in the thumb joint, talk to your doctor so you may be properly diagnosed and receive a treatment plan that is right for you.

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