Thumb arthritis is the second most common form of arthritis that causes inflammation of the joints and the most common arthritis of the hand. It is more prevalent in women than men, affecting 11% of men and 33% of women between the ages of 50 and 60. It occurs when the carpometacarpal (CMC) joint cartilage at the base of the thumb gradually wears away, creating friction and damaging the joint over time.
Arthritis in the thumb typically manifests as severe inflammation, causing pain, and decreased strength and range of motion. That makes completing simple everyday tasks difficult, like turning a key or knobs.
While there is no cure for the condition, several treatment methods can alleviate symptoms and restore thumb function. These typically include medications and splints. However, if the thumb arthritis is severe, surgical intervention might be the best option.
This article will discuss all you need to know about thumb arthritis to understand the condition better, including its causes, symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment methods. Read on to learn more!
Causes and Risk Factors
Thumb arthritis is a common condition linked with aging. The majority of people who develop this condition are above 40. Moreover, previous injuries or trauma in the thumb, like fractures, can also lead to arthritis.
During normal conditions, the smooth cartilage covers the bone ends, serving as a barrier against the bones from rubbing against each other and enabling the easy movement of bones. However, when the cushion-like cartilage in the CMC joint begins to weaken and wear away, it causes the bones to rub against each other, causing pain and discomfort.
While arthritis in the thumb is most commonly associated with adults above the age of 40, some other common risk factors that make an individual prone to develop the condition include:
- Injuries or trauma to the thumb joint
- Being female
- Working on the computer for long hours
- Hereditary conditions, malformed joints, or ligament laxity
- Diseases that impact the normal bone structure, like lupus or rheumatoid arthritis (RA)
- Performing repetitive motions for extended periods
- Jobs or activities that put excessive pressure on the thumb joint
The most common and obvious symptom in patients suffering from thumb arthritis is pain at the base of their thumb. This pain can occur during pinching, gripping, or grasping an object or any other activity that requires them to apply force using the thumb.
Moreover, as arthritis progresses, it can lead to the development of bone spurs, producing lumps on the thumb joint and resulting in an enlarged appearance of the thumb.
Some other common are the signs and symptoms:
- Aching and discomfort
- The base of the thumb becomes tender
- Decreased strength
- Limited range of motion
If the pain inhibits you from performing day-to-day activities, it becomes essential to consult with a doctor at the earliest.
To diagnose the condition, your doctor will closely examine the joints. They will ask about your symptoms, the severity of the pain, what aggravates or relieves the pain, and if you have had a history of injury or trauma to the thumb.
They will also perform tests that include holding the joint and testing the range of motion of the thumb by moving it. During this, they will check for unusual grinding sounds or if it causes any pain to determine if bones rub against each other, which might indicate arthritis of the thumb.
If the medical professional suspects arthritis after this initial screening, they will likely refer you for imaging tests like an X-ray for a more detailed examination. That gives them a closer look at the affected joint and allows them to check for bone spurs, calcium deposits, or deterioration between the bones.
Moreover, pain around the base of the thumb can also indicate the presence of carpal tunnel syndrome, which is usually ruled out with further testing.
The best thumb arthritis treatment approach depends upon the severity of the symptoms. Non-surgical treatment methods are used for thumb arthritis in the early stages. However, if arthritis does not respond well to noninvasive procedures, undergoing surgery might be the best option to prevent further progression of the disease and relieve symptoms.
Some noninvasive methods to alleviate symptoms of arthritis in the thumb include:
Applying Cold or Heat
Applying a cold compress to the joint for five to fifteen minutes a few times a day can help reduce pain, inflammation, and swelling. For some people, applying heat might work better than icing the joint.
Performing thumb exercises like a thumb stretch, thumb IP flexion, thumb MP flexion, or thumb opposition several times a day can help improve symptoms and enhance range of motion.
OTC or prescription anti-inflammatory medications can also help relieve pain and inflammation temporarily. These include aspirin, ibrufen, capsaicin, diclofenac, celecoxib, tramadol etc.
A thumb brace for arthritis might be prescribed to allow the joint to rest by limiting thumb activity. The thumb splint can be worn overnight or with breaks during the day. It provides support to the thumb joint and results in pain relief.
If other treatment methods do not work, your doctor might suggest injections. Steroid injection therapy (corticosteroid) can provide short-term but significant relief from arthritis pain and inflammation.
Unfortunately, arthritis is a progressive disease, and some patients do not respond well to noninvasive techniques. If thumb function or the symptoms do not improve with self-care techniques or injections, the next option is surgery to prevent the condition from worsening over time.
There are various surgical options available that your doctor might suggest depending upon factors like the severity of the condition and the extent of the pain. They include:
This procedure involves removing the trapezium, a small bone making up the wrist joint.
Thumb Fusion (Arthrodesis)
The bones in the thumb joint are permanently fused together in this procedure. While it may reduce the flexibility or mobility of the thumb and prevent you from performing certain tasks, it helps alleviate the symptoms of thumb arthritis.
Total Joint Replacement (Arthroplasty)
It involves removing part of or the entire thumb joint and replacing it with an artificial joint (a prosthesis).
Recovering after surgery can take approximately four to eight weeks, during which you might be required to wear a cast over your thumb. Physical therapy after this period can further improve your post-surgery symptoms and help regain strength and range of motion in your hand.
Thumb arthritis is a commonly occurring condition in middle-aged people, which develops due to the cartilage in the thumb joint deteriorating, which leads to friction in the bones and the bones rubbing against each other. That causes inflammation, pain, and gradual joint damage. However, different treatments and techniques can help in managing arthritis, in addition to reducing pain.
As a degenerative disease, arthritis can advance and worsen with time, causing a hindrance in daily activities. Hence it is necessary to seek treatment from a professional immediately and get treatment in the early stages of the condition. That will help manage symptoms most effectively and enhance the likelihood of a successful outcome while preventing the need for surgery.
Depending on the severity, doctors might recommend anti-inflammatory medications, steroid injections, or perhaps surgery as a last resort.