by Darcy Reber, D.N.P. Orthopedics Mayo Clinic Health System Cannon Falls
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.
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:
Swelling, stiffness and tenderness at the base of your thumb
Decreased strength when pinching or grasping objects
Decreased range of motion
Enlarged, bony or out-of-joint appearance of the joint at the base of your thumb
If you have persistent swelling, stiffness or pain at the base of your thumb, seek medical advice. If your doctor determines that you have thumb arthritis, he or she can work with you to develop a pain management and treatment plan.
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.
These factors may increase your risk of thumb arthritis:
Being age 40 or older
Having certain hereditary conditions, including joint ligament laxity and malformed joints
Experiencing injuries to your basal joint, such as fractures and sprains
Having diseases that change the normal structure and function of cartilage, such as rheumatoid arthritis
Performing certain activities and jobs that put high stress on this joint
Self-care measures can help relieve pain, improve mobility and ultimately increase your independence. Here's what may help:
Perform range-of-motion exercises. Exercises that move your thumb through its full range of motion can help improve your joint's mobility. Your doctor or a hand therapist can demonstrate the specific techniques.
Modify hand tools. Consider purchasing jar openers, key turners and large zipper pulls designed for people with limited hand strength. Enlarge the handles on garden tools, kitchen utensils and writing devices - or buy items with large handles. Replace traditional door handles, which you must grasp with your thumb, with levers. Adaptive equipment is often available by catalog. Ask your doctor or hand therapist for recommendations.
Apply heat or cold. Your doctor may recommend using heat or cold - or alternating between them to help relieve swelling and pain and to soothe your joints.
Avoid hand clenching when you carry things. Choose a purse with a sturdy elbow or shoulder strap instead of a short handle. Instead of using grocery bags with handles, use boxy paper bags you can balance on your hip and arm.
Talk to your doctor or hand therapist about other equipment and ideas that may be helpful for you.