Thumb arthritis is the most common form of osteoarthritis affecting the hand. Also called basal joint arthritis, thumb arthritis occurs when the cushioning cartilage wears away from the adjoining ends of the bones that form your thumb joint (carpometacarpal joint).
Thumb arthritis can cause severe hand pain, swelling, and decreased strength and range of motion, making it difficult to do simple household tasks, such as turning doorknobs and opening jars.
Treatment for thumb arthritis may include self-care measures, splints, medication or corticosteroid injections. If you have severe thumb arthritis, you may need surgery.
Thumb arthritis occurs when the cartilage separating the two bones in your thumb joint (carpometacarpal joint) wears away. ...
The first and most common symptom of thumb arthritis is pain. Pain occurs at the base of your thumb when you grip, grasp or pinch an object between your thumb and forefinger or use your thumb to apply force — such as when turning a key, pulling a zipper or opening a jar. Eventually, you may even experience pain when not using your thumb.
Other signs and symptoms may include:
When to see a doctor
Also seek medical advice if you experience side effects — such as nausea, abdominal discomfort, black or tarry stools, constipation, or drowsiness — from arthritis medications.
Thumb arthritis usually occurs as a result of trauma or injury to the joint. Some people also develop thumb arthritis in association with osteoarthritis in larger joints.
The basal joint gives the thumb a wide range of motion, allowing you to pinch, grip and grasp objects. The bones in the thumb's basal joint are the first metacarpal bone, which runs through the heel of your hand, and the trapezium (truh-PEE-zee-um), a small bone at the base of your thumb.
In a normal basal joint, cartilage covers the ends of the bones — acting as a cushion and allowing 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 may result in growth of new bone along the sides of the existing bone (bone spurs), which can produce noticeable lumps on your thumb joint.
These factors may increase your risk of thumb arthritis:
Preparing for your appointment
You're likely to start by seeing your family doctor or a general practitioner. In some cases, you may be referred to a doctor who specializes in the treatment of arthritis and other inflammatory conditions (rheumatologist).
Here's some information to help you prepare for your appointment.
What you can do
Preparing a list of questions for your doctor will help you make the most of your time together. For thumb arthritis, some basic questions to ask your doctor include:
Don't hesitate to ask any other appropriate questions.
What to expect from your doctor
What you can do in the meantime
Tests and diagnosis
During a physical exam, your doctor will ask about your symptoms and look for noticeable swelling or lumps on your joints.
Your doctor may adjust the positions of the bones in your wrist joint, pressing on the base of the thumb while rotating the joint slightly. If this movement produces a grinding sound, or causes pain or a gritty feeling, it means the cartilage has worn down and the bones are rubbing against each other.
Imaging techniques, usually X-rays, can reveal bony projections that grow along the edges of bones (bone spurs), worn-down cartilage and loss of joint space — each indicating the presence of thumb arthritis.
Treatments and drugs
Your doctor may recommend a combination of treatments, including self-care measures, activity modification, splints, medications and physical therapy. In early stages, nonsurgical treatments are usually effective. In severe cases, surgery may be necessary.
Depending on your needs, you may wear a splint just at night or throughout the day and night.
NSAIDs have risks of side effects that increase when used at high doses for long-term treatment. Side effects may include ringing in your ears, gastric ulcers, cardiovascular problems, gastrointestinal bleeding, and liver and kidney damage.
You and your doctor can discuss surgical options and select the one best suited to you. Options include:
Each of these surgical procedures can 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 may work with a physical therapist to help regain hand strength and movement. Although recovery is slow, you should be able to resume your normal activities within six months of surgery.
Lifestyle and home remedies
Self-care measures can help relieve pain, improve mobility and ultimately increase your independence. Here's what may help:
Talk to your doctor about other equipment and ideas that may be helpful for you.
Last Updated: 2012-06-19
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