What is thumb arthritis?
Thumb arthritis occurs when cartilage wears away from the ends of the bones that form your thumb joint — also known as the carpometacarpal (CMC) joint.
Thumb arthritis can cause severe pain, swelling, and decreased strength and range of motion, making it difficult to do simple tasks, such as turning doorknobs and opening jars. Treatment generally involves a combination of medication and splints. Severe thumb arthritis might require surgery.
How common is thumb arthritis?
Thumb arthritis is common with aging. Please discuss with your doctor for further information.
What are the symptoms of thumb arthritis?
Pain is the first and most common symptom of thumb arthritis. Pain can occur at the base of your thumb when you grip, grasp or pinch an object, or use your thumb to apply force.
Other signs and symptoms might include:
- Swelling, stiffness and tenderness at the base of your thumb
- Decreased strength when pinching or grasping objects
- Decreased range of motion
- Enlarged or bony appearance of the joint at the base of your thumb
There may be some symptoms not listed above. If you have any concerns about a symptom, please consult your doctor.
When should I see my doctor?
If you have any signs or symptoms listed above or have any questions, please consult with your doctor. Everyone’s body acts differently. It is always best to discuss with your doctor what is best for your situation.
What causes thumb arthritis?
Thumb arthritis commonly occurs with aging. Previous trauma or injury to the thumb joint also can cause thumb arthritis.
In a normal thumb joint, cartilage covers the ends of the bones — acting as a cushion and allowing the bones to glide smoothly against each other. With thumb arthritis, the cartilage that covers the ends of the bones deteriorates, and its smooth surface roughens. The bones then rub against each other, resulting in friction and joint damage.
The damage to the joint might result in growth of new bone along the sides of the existing bone (bone spurs), which can produce noticeable lumps on your thumb joint.
What increases my risk for thumb arthritis?
There are many risk factors for thumb arthritis, such as:
- Female sex.
- Age above 40 years.
Certain hereditary conditions, such as joint ligament laxity and malformed joints.
Injuries to your thumb joint, such as fractures and sprains.
Diseases that change the normal structure and function of cartilage, such as rheumatoid arthritis. Although osteoarthritis is the most common cause of thumb arthritis, rheumatoid arthritis can also affect the CMC joint, usually to a lesser extent than other joints of the hand.
Activities and jobs that put high stress on the thumb joint.
Diagnosis & treatment
The information provided is not a substitute for any medical advice. ALWAYS consult with your doctor for more information.
How is thumb arthritis diagnosed?
During a physical exam, your doctor will ask about your symptoms and look for noticeable swelling or lumps on your joints.
Your doctor might hold your joint while moving your thumb, with pressure, against your wrist bone. If this movement produces a grinding sound, or causes pain or a gritty feeling, the cartilage has likely worn down, and the bones are rubbing against each other.
Imaging techniques, usually X-rays, can reveal signs of thumb arthritis, including:
- Bone spurs
- Worn-down cartilage
- Loss of joint space
How is thumb arthritis treated?
In the early stages of thumb arthritis, treatment usually involves a combination of non-surgical therapies. If your thumb arthritis is severe, surgery might be necessary.
A splint can support your joint and limit the movement of your thumb and wrist. You might wear a splint just at night or throughout the day and night.
Splints can help:
- Decrease pain
- Encourage proper positioning of your joint while you complete tasks
- Rest your joint
To relieve pain, your doctor might recommend:
- Over-the counter pain relievers, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol, others), ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB, others) or naproxen (Aleve)
- Prescription pain relievers, such as celecoxib (Celebrex) or tramadol (Conzip, Ultram)
If pain relievers and a splint aren’t effective, your doctor might recommend injecting a long-acting corticosteroid into your thumb joint. Corticosteroid injections can offer temporary pain relief and reduce inflammation.
If you don’t respond to other treatments or if you’re barely able to bend and twist your thumb, your doctor might recommend surgery. Options include:
- Joint fusion (arthrodesis). The bones in the affected joint are permanently fused. The fused joint can bear weight without pain, but has no flexibility.
- The bones in the affected joint are repositioned to help correct deformities.
- One of the bones in your thumb joint (trapezium) is removed.
- Joint replacement (arthroplasty). All or part of the affected joint is removed and replaced with a graft from one of your tendons.
These surgeries can all be done on an outpatient basis. After surgery, you can expect to wear a cast or splint over your thumb and wrist for up to six weeks. Once the cast is removed, you might have physical therapy to help you regain hand strength and movement.
Lifestyle changes & home remedies
What are some lifestyle changes or home remedies that can help me manage thumb arthritis?
The following lifestyles and home remedies might help you cope with thumb arthritis:
- Modify hand tools. Consider purchasing adaptive equipment — such as jar openers, key turners and large zipper pulls — designed for people with limited hand strength. Replace traditional door handles, which you must grasp with your thumb, with levers.
- Apply cold. Icing the joint for five to 15 minutes several times a day can help relieve swelling and pain.
If you have any questions, please consult with your doctor to better understand the best solution for you.
Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.
Review Date: December 14, 2017 | Last Modified: December 8, 2019
Thumb arthritis. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/thumb-arthritis/symptoms-causes/syc-20378339. Accessed December 14, 2017.
THUMB ARTHRITIS. http://www.assh.org/handcare/hand-arm-conditions/thumb-arthritis. Accessed December 14, 2017.
Arthritis of the Thumb Base. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/16756-arthritis-of-the-thumb-base. Accessed December 14, 2017.