Do your thumbs creak and crack? Does penning a letter cause you pain and dismay? Is it difficult to get your grip? If these symptoms ring true, you may have carpometacarpal arthritis a.k.a. arthritis of the thumb.
What is thumb arthritis?
Carpometacarpal arthritis is the most common form of osteoarthritis to impact the hand. The mere process of aging causes arthritis of all kinds, including thumb arthritis. As we age, our joint cartilage breaks down, causing the bone beneath the cartilage to do the same. In the case of thumb arthritis, it's the basal joint's cartilage that breaks down. You can find the basal joint at the wrist and fleshy area below the thumb. It's an essential joint for a myriad of reasons because it moves your thumb in so many ways. When the joint cartilage in this area loses integrity, you become limited in ways you might not even imagine until you're actually impacted by this loss of movement. The bone rubs against bone, leading to further deterioration.
Risk factors for thumb arthritis
- Texting incessantly on your cell phone is a repetitive motion that can put you at risk for thumb arthritis.
- If you suffer from arthritis in other parts of your body—the knees, the hips, the elbows, etc.—you may be more prone to having arthritis of the thumb.
- Women are more likely to have thumb arthritis than men—especially women who have flexible thumb ligaments.
- You're of a certain age. By the time you reach "senior citizen" status, arthritis of all kinds abounds.
Thumb arthritis symptoms
As you get older, you may find your thumbs simply don't move the way they used to. Perhaps you've lost some of your grip strength. Maybe you simply cannot move your thumbs as well as you used to. This decreased range of thumb motion is a telltale sign of thumb arthritis. So is pain and/or swelling in the thumb area. Any kind of inflammation points to a possible arthritic condition.
Other signs that you've got some issues that need attending are:
- You find it difficult to snap your fingers.
- There's a bony structure at the base of your thumb.
- You have a difficult time opening jars.
- You simply cannot do the tasks associated with your thumb that you used to do with effortless ease.
Thumb arthritis diagnosis
It's time to come in for a consultation with Dr. Eubanks if you suspect you have thumb arthritis. If you're not sure whether you should schedule an appointment, some of the telltale signs that you should are:
- You've been experiencing pain in the area
- You have swelling at the base of your thumb.
- You've been noticing stiffness at the base of the thumb.
Treatment for thumb arthritis
One of the best things you can do for any part of your body is to move it. This applies to your thumbs as well! A low-cost/no-cost method of treatment you can do at home is a set of thumb exercises known to increase range of movement and prevent further deterioration of movement. Certain ways we move our hands—the repetitive ones of our modern day that have gotten us in this arthritis debacle to begin with—are detrimental to thumb arthritis. Other ones however, are greatly beneficial.
Because thumb arthritis, and all kinds of arthritis for that matter, manifest in different ways, treatment varies from one person to the next. Some of the less invasive forms of treatment include:
- Ice therapy - Icing the joint can help decrease pain, as well as inflammation.
- Splinting - Sometimes wearing a splint, especially at night, can be of benefit because it allows the thumb joint to take a much needed rest. Many people report a decrease in arthritic pain due to the relaxation of the joint and also the fact that the splint helps hold the thumb in its correct position.
- Medication - Over the counter meds for thumb arthritis are: NSAIDS (Advil, ibuprofen, Advil) or acetaminophen (Tylenol), while prescription meds may include COX-2 inhibitors and pain medication.
Thumb exercises for prevention and treatment
Thumb exercises can be an effective form of treatment and also prevention. Not only do these exercises work to improve your thumb's range of motion, they also help decrease the severity of arthritic symptoms. To get started with a few exercises, here's a sample of some effective hand exercises you can do at home while watching TV, listening to music, or taking a walk.
- Thumb stretch - With the thumb stretch exercise, all you need to do is practice touching the tip of your thumb to the tip of your pinky. This might be difficult, but the more you stretch this area, the better off you'll be.
- Similar to the thumb stretch, do the exact same thing with all your fingers. Touch the thumb to the pointer, to the middle finger, to the ring finger, to the pinky, and repeat.
- IP stretch - Hold the bottom half of the thumb with your opposite hand. Then, practice bending the upper part of your thumb, while keeping that lower part stable. Do several rounds.
Surgical treatments for thumb arthritis
Once these treatment options are explored, more complex treatments may be necessary. The four primary types of surgery for thumb arthritis are:
- Trapeziectomy - A trapeziectomy removes one of the wrist bones.
- Osteotomy - During an osteotomy, Dr. Eubanks will stabilize the thumb by aligning the bones and trimming off any unnecessary growths.
If you suspect it's time for a consultation with Dr. Eubanks, don't delay. As for any malady, the best treatment is early treatment!
Our Surgeon Specializing in Thumb Arthritis
- Ryan Eubanks, DO
- Hand, Plastic & Reconstructive Surgeon
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