Symptoms of Thumb Arthritis

Updated April 17, 2017

Arthritis of the thumb, known as basal joint arthritis, most often strikes at the base of the thumb rather than where the thumb bends at the knuckle. But the condition can still reduce the strength and flexibility of the thumb, making everyday activities difficult and painful. Treatment methods can alleviate some of the symptoms and special devices can make jobs such as opening jars and working with tools a little easier.


The first symptom of thumb arthritis is pain at the thumb's base when pressure is applied during grabbing, pinching or lifting movements. Your thumb may hurt even when you're not using it. According to the Mayo Clinic, you may experience a weakening of the thumb and a tenderness at the base of the thumb. Mayo doctors also note that your ability to pinch or grip something could seem noticeably weaker. As the arthritis continues to develop, you could see swelling in that area. Doctors at the University of Washington Medical Center say you could expect to see "an enlarged bony appearance at the base of the thumb." An arthritic thumb is usually stiff with a noticeably restricted range of motion.


The degree to which you experience pain, stiffness or even a change in the thumb's appearance will depend on the severity of the arthritis and how much you use your thumb. A tennis player who has arthritis in the thumb of his racket hand will have more pain and difficulty gripping the racket as arthritis advances. You may have to give up certain activities and learn to do certain things, such as zipping up a jacket, with your other hand if thumb arthritis develops significantly.


Thumb arthritis is a form of osteoarthritis (OA), for which there is no cure and for which the cause is still somewhat of a mystery. Factory workers or others who work with their hands experience repetitive stress on the thumb joint and are more likely to develop thumb arthritis, University of Washington doctors note. Obesity is also a risk factor for OA in any joint, so losing weight may help at least delay the development of thumb arthritis and many other conditions, the Mayo Clinic reports. Ageing and a family history of arthritis are two uncontrollable risk factors, but they do raise the odds of thumb arthritis. Take precautions to prevent thumb injuries caused through work, sports or any other reason, and you could help prevent the development of thumb arthritis.


Depending the specific nature of your thumb arthritis, you may be able to buy a splint or you may need to have a splint custom made. In either case, a splint can help support the thumb joint and keep it in proper position. This will relieve pain and give you a little greater function of the thumb muscle. Over-the-counter pain relievers including acetaminophen and ibuprofen can help reduce the discomfort of thumb arthritis, but consult with a doctor about dosage, possible side effects and possible interactions (especially with ibuprofen) with other medications you may be taking. Injections of corticosteroids can temporarily relieve some pain and inflammation, but they are not long-term and frequent treatment possibilities. Several types of surgery that manipulate the bones in the thumb joint have also been successful at restoring some motion and strength to an arthritic thumb, the Southeastern Hand Center reports.


Don't delay in seeking a diagnosis. Seek medical attention promptly when you start to experience thumb arthritis symptoms. The sooner you can have the condition diagnosed and treated, the sooner you can get relief from your symptoms, say doctors with the Southeastern Hand Center in Jacksonville, Florida. Contact your doctor immediately and ask about alternative treatments if you begin taking arthritis medication and have side effects such as nausea, bowel problems, drowsiness or dizziness.

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About the Author

James Roland is the editor of a monthly health publication that has approximately 75,000 subscribers in the United States and Canada. Previously, he worked as a newspaper reporter and editor, covering issues ranging from the environment and government to family matters and education. He earned a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Oregon.