Thumb Arthritis: What Can Be Done About It

How Can We Help?

Sohail N. Husain, MDby Sohail N. Husain, MD

Many people have pain at the base of their thumb that interferes with their enjoyment of daily activities. What most people don’t know is that there are treatments for this pain that can really improve your quality of life.

Pain at the base of the thumb, near where the thumb meets the wrist, is also known as basal joint arthritis. It occurs then you wear away the joint between the first bone to the thumb, which is called the first metacarpal, and one of the bones of the wrist, called the trapezium. As the cartilage here wears away, these two bones rub on each other and this gives many patients significant pain.

No one knows why some people get this arthritis and some people do not. The more we use our hands, the more we can wear away our cartilage. When this cartilage become thin, people develop pain.

Thumb arthritis is extremely common. This happens more frequently in women than men, but many men are also afflicted with this pain. About fifty percent of women over the age of fifty have thumb arthritis. This pain can be a constant nagging pain where the thumb meets the wrist or it may only be painful when you are active with this hand. Activities that are particularly problematic include gripping, twisting and opening jars.

Many people simply live with this pain and consider it to be a normal part of growing older. Aging doesn’t have to be a painful process. There are multiple treatment options for thumb arthritis to stop that pain and get you back to doing all of your favorite activities. When thumb arthritis is treated well most patients have minimal pain and many patients return to activities that they have had to give up in the past due to their hand pain.

Treating thumb pain starts with a doctor’s visit and a conversation. We will talk about the kind of pain that you’re having and then we’ll take a look at the joints in your hand. After that we usually check an x-ray to see how bad your arthritis is and if it looks like thumb arthritis is your main problem we talk about treatments.

Medications, splints, injections and surgery are our options for treating thumb arthritis. When we first meet a patient we talk about these options and almost always start treatment with anti-inflammatory medications and splinting. The splint that we use is a small one that wraps around the base of your thumb and helps to hold that arthritic joint stable to decrease your pain.

Some patients also choose to have a cortisone shot at the base of their thumb. You could either choose to have a shot during your first visit or at some time down the road if your thumb starts to bother you more.

For people who don’t get better with splinting and medication, surgery can be very helpful. Surgery for this condition involves removing the small wrist bone at the base of the thumb. Getting rid of that arthritic joint gives patients incredible pain relief. After that bone is removed we stabilize the joint by moving one of the wrist tendons. Many patients tell us that being able to use their thumb again without pain has really improved their life. If you happen to need surgery for this, you may feel relieved to know that the surgery for thumb arthritis is one of the best and most reliable procedures in hand surgery.

Learn more about Thumb Arthritis in our Agility Learning Center. Better yet, just call and come in and we can talk about this together.