Why does my thumb hurt?

Have you been having constant pain in your thumb? Is it swollen? Are you over 40? You may have arthritis in your thumb.

What is thumb arthritis?

Thumb arthritis occurs when cartilage in the carpometacarpal (CMC) joint at the bottom of the thumb is rubbed away. This leads to joint pain and swelling that occurs at the base of the thumb. 

The bones in your thumb joint are cushioned and protected by cartilage. This rubbery tissue stops the bones from rubbing against one another. 

Once the cartilage is worn away, usually as people age, it creates friction, pain, and swelling.

Long term there may be damage to the joint that affects the range of motion. 

What are the symptoms?

Pain at the base of the thumb is usually the first symptom. It may be particularly noticeable when you pinch or grip an object, or use your thumb to apply force. 

Other symptoms of thumb arthritis include:

  • swelling at the base of the thumb
  • aching, discomfort, or tenderness at the base of the thumb
  • limited range of motion in the joint
  • enlarged, bony-looking joint at the base of the thumb
  • weakness in the thumb joint

Symptoms can be mild at first then get worse over time, especially if a person does not seek treatment.

What causes it?

Thumb arthritis develops over time, often as part of the normal aging process, so it is more common in adults over 40 years of age.

Women tend to be more prone to thumb arthritis than men are.

Other factors that may make a person more likely to develop thumb arthritis include:

  • fractures or injuries to the CMC joint
  • obesity
  • hobbies or jobs that stress the thumb joint
  • typing, texting, computer work
  • other forms of arthritis, like rheumatoid arthritis

How can it be treated?

The severity of a person’s thumb arthritis will help a doctor determine which treatment is best. Osteoarthritis is a progressive disease, meaning it may get worse over time.

According to the American Society for Surgery of the Hand, there is no medication available that can slow the progression of arthritis in the thumb.

But some treatments may help alleviate the symptoms. Potential treatments include:

  • bracing the thumb
  • exercises to strengthen the muscles around the thumb
  • anti-inflammatory medications
  • steroid injections
  • occupational or physical therapies
  • applying heat or ice to the joint
  • ergonomic adjustments
  • avoiding activities that put pressure on the thumb

Surgery is usually only advised in severe cases.

With regular treatment, many people are able to manage their thumb arthritis and reduce it’s symptoms.