Understanding Arthritis in Thumb Joints: Everything you Need to Know
Some people experience arthritis in their hands, some people feel it in their elbows, and others in their backs. Arthritis can have many different causes and affect different people in different ways, but there’s always one unfortunate commonality – the debilitating pain that arthritis brings to your joints.
At its best, arthritis is a frustrating condition that causes your joints to be stiff when you wake up. At its worst, arthritis prevents you from walking, writing, or even sitting without severe pain and discomfort. The condition is characterized by pain, stiffness and swelling of the joints, and may occur in large joints like the knee, or as we will discuss in this article, small joints like the thumb.
What is arthritis in thumb joints?
One of the most painful and frustrating places to have arthritis is in the thumb. This can cause a lot of discomfort to the thumb joints, which we use for so many basic tasks every day (pinching, grasping, and of course thumbs up gestures!).
Unfortunately, arthritis in thumb joints is a condition that affects around 10% of the population, which makes the thumb the second-most common part of the hand for arthritis to occur.
What causes arthritis in the thumb?
Arthritis in the thumb usually occurs in the joint that connects the thumb to the trapezium bone in the wrist, known as the first carpometacarpal or basal joint. Most commonly, this develops as a result of regular wear and tear of the basal joint, which is why this condition more commonly affects people later in life.
This type of arthritis is known as osteoarthritis and occurs when the protective cartilage layer between two bones in the thumb becomes worn away. As the cartilage layer becomes thinner, the ends of the bones in the thumb are more exposed and rub against each other. This causes the pain, inflammation and swelling that is so characteristic of arthritis.
What do arthritic thumbs feel like?
The telltale sign of arthritis in the thumb is a pain at the base of the thumb, which may intensify when you use your thumb to pinch or hold an object, press on something or apply force. You may notice that the pain is worse in the morning, or in cold weather. In most cases of osteoarthritis, both thumbs will show signs of the condition, and be equally painful.
As well as pain, here are some other symptoms of arthritis in the thumb:
- Swelling. This is often most noticeable at the base of the thumb, around the basal joint connecting the thumb to the rest of your hand. As with the pain, you may notice that the swelling is worse when you first wake up.
- Tenderness. You may also notice that the base of your thumb is tender to the touch. This may be accompanied by discomfort or a dull ache in your thumb, even when you’re not using it. If you visit a doctor, they will likely examine and feel your thumb for any tenderness.
- Limited movement or loss of strength. You might discover that you don’t have the range of motion or strength in your thumb or hand that you had previously. You may struggle to make a fist, to grip an object, or to spread your thumb and fingers apart.
- Visible changes to your thumb. In some severe cases, you may notice changes when you look at your hands. Some people see an enlarged or protruding bony-looking joint at the base of the thumb as their arthritis becomes more advanced.
Having arthritis does not necessarily mean that you will experience all of the symptoms listed above. If you experience pain or any of the above symptoms, it’s a good idea to have your thumbs and hands checked by a doctor to discover what may be causing your discomfort.
What Treatments are There for Arthritic Thumbs?
Once a doctor makes a diagnosis of arthritis, they will talk to you about your different treatment options. Although there is sadly no cure for arthritis in the thumb (or any joint for that matter), there are many ways to manage the symptoms of arthritis. Combining several of these options may give you the most effective relief from painful arthritis symptoms:
- Exercise. The more you move your thumb, the better it will feel. Although this is difficult if it causes pain, exercising your thumb will help to increase blood flow, which can relieve the symptoms of arthritis. Try some of these basic thumb exercises and stretches to reduce arthritis pain.
- Medications. While painkillers can offer effective relief, make sure you understand the risks associated with these medications – particularly when they are taken in the long term. Pain relieving drugs like non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can cause heart problems, and prescription opioids can lead to addiction. You can learn more about medicine for arthritis pain here.
- Topical treatments. Many topical treatments such as creams or ointments can be applied directly to the thumb to provide rapid, soothing relief. For example, CBDMEDIC™’s arthritis hand cream can help you move your thumbs and hands freely again by relieving painful arthritic symptoms with the use of naturally-derived ingredients.
- Surgery. Sometimes, the first carpometacarpal joint can become so damaged that surgery is necessary. There are different types of surgeries that may be beneficial, ranging from a ligament reconstruction to a total joint replacement. Talk to your doctor or an orthopedic specialist to see whether surgery may be right for you.
Although the pain associated with arthritic thumbs can often be extreme, taking the above measures should offer some relief. By regularly moving and exercising your thumb, and applying a topical treatment to relieve symptoms, you can fight arthritis and continue to pinch, grasp and give a big thumbs up, all day long.