Thumb arthritis is common with aging and occurs when cartilage wears away from the ends of the bones that form the joint at the base of your thumb — 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.
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:
See your doctor if you have persistent swelling, stiffness or pain at the base of your thumb.
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.
Factors that can increase your risk of thumb arthritis include:
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:
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.
To relieve pain, your doctor might recommend:
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:
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:
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.
To ease pain and improve joint mobility, try to:
You might be referred to a doctor who specializes in disorders of the joints (rheumatologist).
In addition to the questions that you've prepared to ask your doctor, don't hesitate to ask other questions.
Your doctor is likely to ask you a number of questions. Being ready to answer them may leave time to go over points you want to discuss in depth. You might be asked:
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