Thumb Arthritis Explained

You reach out to grasp a doorknob, and feel a sudden pain at the base of your thumb. Could this be a symptom of thumb arthritis?



Arthritis is the common name for any of approximately 300 inflammatory joint disorders. One of the most common types to affect the hand is osteoarthritis. This degenerative joint disease usually develops over a period of years, though it may be accelerated by an injury.

Thumb arthritis is the most common form of osteoarthritis in the hand, and is caused when the cartilage in the thumb joint begins to erode. Normally, the tips of our bones are cushioned by cartilage. This permits bones to glide smoothly as they move within a joint. When arthritis attacks a joint, this protective cartilage deteriorates and bone can begin to grind painfully against bone. Sometimes, arthritic damage in the thumb joint can prompt the growth of new bone along the sides of existing bone. These bone “spurs” may create noticeable lumps that aesthetically disfigure the hand at the thumb joint.

The most common cause of thumb arthritis is an injury or trauma to the joint. In other cases, osteoarthritis moves to the thumb after affecting larger joints in the body. Although trauma and the presence of osteoarthritis are risk factors for the development of thumb arthritis, there are others:

  • Gender: Women are at higher risk of developing thumb arthritis. After the age of 40, women with this condition outnumber men by a ratio of 10 to 1.
  • Age: After 40, the risk of thumb arthritis increases.
  • Heredity: Inherited traits like joint ligament laxity and malformed joints increase the possibility that you will develop thumb arthritis.
  • Overuse: some activities and repetitive physical tasks required in certain jobs may put stress on the thumb joint and increase risk of damage.
  • Disease: Conditions like rheumatoid arthritis change the structure and function of cartilage, increasing risk of thumb arthritis.

Often pain at the base of the thumb is the first symptom to signal a problem. Pain appears when a person attempts to grasp an object between the thumb and forefinger, or uses the thumb to apply force. Simple tasks that were always easy to do—like turning a doorknob, opening a jar, pulling a zipper, or using a key in a lock—start to cause pain.

Pain is the most common signal of thumb arthritis, but it is not the only symptom of this joint disorder. Other symptoms include:

  • Swelling, stiffness and tenderness at the base of the thumb.
  • Occasional sensations of warmth in the joint area.
  • Decreased strength when using the thumb for pinching or grabbing actions.
  • Loss of motion in the thumb joint.
  • Enlarged, bony appearance of the joint at the base of the thumb.

If you are experiencing symptoms of thumb arthritis, consult your doctor. Although this degenerative disease will worsen over time, there are a number of treatments available to alleviate pain and help with function. When you address thumb arthritis in the early stages, conservative, nonsurgical treatments can usually manage pain effectively.

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