How Is Thumb Arthritis Treated?

When arthritis makes thumb movement painful, the impact on quality of life can be significant. Learn more about the treatments available to ease the pain of thumb arthritis.

The joint at the base of the thumb allows the thumb to pivot and pinch, enabling us to use our thumb to grip objects. When arthritis develops in the thumb, it can become difficult and painful to perform common everyday tasks we once took for granted.

There are a number of types of arthritis. Degenerative osteoarthritis is the type that most commonly affects the thumb joint. This “wear-and-tear” arthritis occurs when the protective cartilage covering the bones in the joint begins to wear away.

Treatments vary depending upon the age of the patient, and the severity of the arthritis. Some patients have an anatomical defect in the joint and are susceptible to arthritis earlier in life. In most patients, however, arthritis symptoms appear later in life, when patients are in their 40s, 50s, and 60s, after wear and tear have taken a toll.

The range in age of patients with thumb arthritis makes it difficult to talk about treatment in generalities. There are many surgical treatments available, but any surgical option changes the anatomy by taking bad bone out and creating a new joint. For younger patients, our goal is to do the least aggressive and invasive surgery necessary to keep the normal anatomy intact.

When arthritis is in early stages, there are a number of nonsurgical treatments available. Summit experts teach patients how to correctly hold objects, and to be aware of their hand position. Other treatments she uses for early stage thumb arthritis include the following:

  • Occupational therapy modalities help preserve motion.
  • Prescription rubs have an anti-inflammatory effect.
  • A brace will support the thumb and hold it in place so that the joint can rest. Braces prevent patients from overstressing the joint or performing motions that will aggravate it.
  • Cortisone injections also provide pain relief, and can delay or, in some cases, eliminate the need for surgical treatment.

When the thumb becomes painful, patients can use the brace for several days or weeks—until it feels better. Some patients use the brace at night, but it can be used during the day as well. We suggest that patients be aware of which activities cause them pain, and then use the brace during those activities, if possible. If or when a brace does not give pain relief, we’ll consider injections. If these treatments are no longer able to relieve pain for a long period of time, we’ll look at surgical options to change the joint so that it doesn’t hurt. Our goal is to provide pain relief that enables patients to get back to their daily routine and maintain their quality of life.


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