A person holding their thumb.
Signs of thumb arthritis include pain and swelling in the thumb joint.

What to Know About Thumb Arthritis

While arthritis is incredibly common (it affects over 350 million people worldwide each year), most people only associate it with the most commonly affected joints: wrists, knees, hips, and shoulders. However, arthritis can strike other joints.

One type of arthritis that is common but isn’t discussed frequently is thumb arthritis. This article has all the information you need about thumb arthritis, including its causes, symptoms, treatment, and prevention.

Causes of Thumb Arthritis

It is a degenerative condition that is caused by continual wear and tear on the joint connecting your thumb to the rest of your hand, which is called the carpometacarpal (CMC) joint.

Unlike other types of arthritis (like rheumatoid arthritis and psoriatic arthritis), it is not necessarily caused by any inflammatory response in the body, though these other types of arthritis may cause symptoms in the thumb. Thumb arthritis often occurs as a result of aging.

Some other risk factors include obesity, injuries, activities and jobs that put significant stress on the thumb joints, and gender (thumb arthritis occurs more frequently in women).

Thumb Arthritis Symptoms

The most obvious symptom is pain in the thumb, especially if it can’t be connected to a specific injury or event. Other signs and symptoms of thumb arthritis can include swelling, stiffness, or tenderness at the base of the thumb. You may also experience a decrease in the overall function of the thumb, or reduced strength or range of motion.

Because it is usually osteoarthritis (caused by wear and tear in the joints instead of an inflammatory response), symptoms will most often stay confined to the hands. That said, you may experience thumb arthritis concurrently with other forms of arthritis.

Treatment Options

This condition is usually diagnosed easily by a doctor. They will examine you for signs of swelling and tenderness in the CMC joint. It can also be diagnosed by x-rays since it frequently occurs at the same time as bone spurs, worn down cartilage, and loss of space within the joints.

When caught early, treatment for thumb arthritis aims to keep symptoms at bay and to stop the condition from becoming worse. While the medications meant for rheumatoid arthritis may not necessarily be effective for most cases of thumb arthritis, there are other options available.

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Medications for rheumatoid arthritis may include:

  • Topical creams: These usually contain ingredients like capsaicin or diclofenac, which are applied over the skin around the joint and can relieve pain and soothe inflammation.
  • Over-the-counter pain relievers: Acetaminophen (Tylenol), ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) or naproxen sodium (Aleve) are common choices. Always take these in accordance with the guidance on the label.
  • Prescription pain relievers: Celecoxib (Celebrex) or tramadol (Conzip, Ultram). These are unlikely to be prescribed for mild symptoms.

A splint is another measure that may be helpful for some patients. Splints can help provide additional support to the joint and reduce the progression of arthritis.

Just keep in mind that not all braces are created equal. You may have to try more than one to find one that works well for you. Braces may not be suitable for every case either; some people may experience worse symptoms after bracing because the immobilized joint can become stiff.

For later-stage cases, there are stronger treatment options. These include injecting corticosteroids into the affected joint, and surgery. Surgery for thumb arthritis is generally treated as a last resort but may be necessary if your condition causes complete immobility of the hand or thumb. Most surgeries are relatively simple outpatient procedures with reasonable recovery periods (roughly six weeks).

How to Prevent Thumb Arthritis

Once this condition has begun, it is difficult and often impossible to reverse it. Similarly, it can be difficult to prevent. However, there are long-term lifestyle changes that can be implemented to help manage it and keep it from developing.

These include reducing stress on the hands and thumb. Many tools and appliances have ergonomic alternatives and adaptors available on the market. Voice-to-text and touchscreen capabilities on smart devices can also reduce the strain of using these devices (be careful of “texting thumb”).

Additionally, general healthy lifestyle choices like maintaining a healthy weight and exercising regularly are important for preventing any form of osteoarthritis. While it may seem counterintuitive, staying active helps prevent arthritis by maintaining strength and flexibility in the joints.

Flexibility and strength of the CMC joint may be improved through exercises as well. Thumb stretches and exercises can be helpful for people who have thumb arthritis already or are interested in preventing it from developing.

Final Notes

If you are concerned you may be developing thumb arthritis your first step should be to talk to your doctor. If caught early, thumb arthritis is very easily managed. However, if you ignore it, it can cause a lot of issues, including immobility, down the line.