How to Avoid the Pain of Thumb Arthritis
Grace Weatherby
/ Categories: WELLNESS, 2024

How to Avoid the Pain of Thumb Arthritis

From texting and turning doorknobs to weeding and making meals, we engage our thumb hundreds upon hundreds of times a day. It’s no wonder arthritis of the thumb is one of the most common types of arthritis.

Also known as basal joint arthritis, arthritis of the thumb affects the part that's right next to your wrist. It can be thought of as wear and tear on the joint cartilage. As damage to the joint increases over time, so do the symptoms and severity of the condition.

Common symptoms include:

- Pain at the base of the thumb, especially when using your thumb to grip, pinch, or twist objects

- Stiffness in the joint, especially after activity

- Swelling, tenderness, and even redness around the joint

- Limited range of motion in the thumb

- Reduced strength in the thumb

- Grinding sensation in the joint during movement

While arthritis of the thumb is a chronic condition with no cure, there are treatment options that can minimize discomfort and improve hand function. These include:

Over-the-counter (OTC) medication: NSAIDs (such as ibuprofen and naproxen), topical gels and creams are a solid first step in dealing with the pain of osteoarthritis.

Splinting: If there is a particular activity or repeated motion that contributes to pain, a soft splint (available at most pharmacies) can help support the joint and relieve pain when engaging in that activity. Stick with the soft braces to reduce stiffness.

Occupational therapy: Exercises offered through occupational therapy can improve thumb strength, range of motion and flexibility, and allow you to continue to engage in regular activities. Occupational therapists can also fabricate custom splints that can help when the soft braces are not an option (such as when you need to wear gloves).

Corticosteroid injections: While not a long-term solution for osteoarthritis, injections can provide pain relief to some for a few months or even a few years. Unfortunately, over time the effectiveness tends to lessen as the arthritis progresses.

Surgery: For patients who have exhausted all other treatment options, surgery may be recommended. The most common surgical option involves removing one of the painful bones in your wrist and stabilizing your thumb. While this option is very effective at relieving pain, it does require a few months of recovery including splinting and occupational therapy to ensure a good outcome. There are newer surgical options, which involve cutting the nerves that go to your joint that cause pain, that have a shorter recovery. You should discuss with your surgeon what option would be best for you.

Again, there’s no cure for arthritis but early diagnosis can set you up for a management plan that will allow you maintain full function of your thumb with as little discomfort as possible for as long as possible. 

To learn more about treatments options offered through SVMC Orthopedics, visit svmc.org/ortho or call 802-442-6314 (Bennington, VT) or 413-458-4452 (Williamstown, MA).

 

David Veltre, MD, is an orthopedic surgeon specializing in hand and upper extremity surgery at SVMC Orthopedics, which has offices in Bennington, VT and Williamstown, MA.

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