A common question that I often get at the clinic when someone has thumb pain is, “Do I have thumb arthritis?”
Many factors can cause thumb pain. A critical aspect of treatment is to rule in and rule out whether you have thumb arthritis or some other diagnosis that can be causing you thumb pain, such as de Quervain’s tendinitis trigger thumb or a possible nerve issue.
What is thumb arthritis?
Thumb arthritis, also known as CMC arthritis, is a bony change to the joint surfaces of the base of your thumb where it meets the wrist bones.
You can have arthritis there or any other part of your thumb, but CMC arthritis tends to be the most common that causes the most amount of pain. This is because the surface of the joints can wear down over time and can cause pain, limit your strength, and how you can use your hands for every aspect of your daily living.
Research shows thumb arthritis affects about 30% of the general population. CMC arthritis happens more in women than in men. Just because arthritis can occur does not mean that it needs to be painful or stay painful.
Your thumb does 50% of the work of your whole hand!
To be able to pick up small objects, you need to use your thumb and index finger. For example, opening a door or using your hands to pick up a heavy bag requires the strength of your thumb and ring and small finger.
There is nothing that you can do without the use of your thumbs.
Your thumb is one of the most important joints in your body. It can move in all directions and has almost as much motion as your shoulder. Your thumb is meant to be strong! Because it has a lot of extra muscles that help it to move things in and out of your hand, the ability to open jars and bottles, and to hold on tight.
Because of the thumbs’ powerful ability in motion and strength, it leads your thumb to develop thumb pain over time if you don’t take care of your thumb.
What are thumb CMC arthritis symptoms?
The pain symptom of thumb arthritis is pain, loss of motion, and the feeling of loss of strength.
There are many other reasons you could be experiencing thumb pain, so it’s important to rule out arthritis and other thumb problems. Going to a certified hand therapist can help to do just that.
We perform different clinic tests that confirm your pain and the root cause of the thumb pain. Not all arthritis causes pain. There are plenty of people with bony changes as we age that do not have pain.
Another symptom of thumb arthritis is a zig-zag type of deformity. It’s where the base of the thumb looks like it falls into the palm of the hand, and sometimes the ball of the joint can look big or swollen.
What are some thumb arthritis treatments?
Thumb arthritis treated early has the best chance of getting rid of thumb pain, reducing deformity of the thumb, and preventing surgery or at least delaying surgery.
Considering the thumb does 50% of all things that you do with your hands, it’s so important to treat them right for the longevity of your life! Thumbs are so important that if you cut off your thumb, they could replace it with your toe! Little fun facts 🙂
Before I dive into treatments, please consider the following common mistakes that I often see when working with people with thumb pain.
Unfortunately, many of our clients have gone to generic types of therapy clinics, brief visits with doctors that only confirm their thumb pain, or have tried doing treatments themselves using google and youtube videos.
And while those sometimes may help, if you are still having thumb pain that does not go away, could you be committing one of these common mistakes?
3 Common mistakes when treating thumb arthritis pain:
One size fits all types of treatment
No one thumb pain is alike. It’s important to rule in and rule out other problems that might be causing thumb pain because not all thumb pain is CMC arthritis.
Thinking that it’s normal to have thumb pain just because you have arthritis
You don’t have to have pain just because x-rays show bony changes. Our clients often have thumb pain due to muscle imbalances, wrist related issues due to compensating for years.
Waiting too long for professional treatment
Thumb pain can occur in both hands with true CMC arthritis. When you are trying to treat yourself, you could be sacrificing one thumb to help the other. And end up with both thumbs hurting versus helping both thumbs.
Considering these common mistakes. And here are some common treatments that we recommend if you are looking to get rid of thumb pain, avoid taking pills, and avoid surgery at all costs.
Common types of treatment that you can get started with:
Use of heat
Using moist heat like a paraffin bath is best!
Getting your motion back
Gentle stretching of the thumb joints in all directions without causing more pain. The thumb has a lot of motion and tends to fall into the palm. The best way to get rid of pain is to restore the balance of how the joint sits and how the muscles help it move. We like to treat in a pain-free way, so that’s my recommendation to you if you want to try alone.
Use of braces or splints
Here’s where it gets tricky. Yes, you can buy a small or short thumb spica brace for your thumb. Make sure it’s well fitted and that it doesn’t stop you from moving. Using it incorrectly can cause you to have more pain later.
Joint protection techniques
There are so many ways in which to remain still independent and protect your hands. A few examples are, use things that have a large handle. Use a knife or scissors to cut that are sharp. Pushing is easier on your thumbs than pulling.
If you are suffering from thumb pain and tired of thinking about how bad they feel every day when you wake up, look for a certified hand therapist that can help you.
One thing we do well here at Hands-on Therapy Services is getting you clear on what’s wrong so that we can create a custom-fitted plan that works for you.
There’s no cookie-cutter program where you sit with a bunch of other people waiting your turn to get relief from your thumb pain. Instead, learn exactly what you need to do to get rid of thumb pain like CMC arthritis.
Written by Hoang Tran
About the author – Hoang Tran
Hoang Tran is a Miami certified hand therapist , the owner of Hands-on Therapy Services and author of the book “The Hands-On Approach”. She loves helping people with hand, neck and shoulder problems, because she knows how bad and debilitating they can get if not addressed and treated properly (once and for all!).
The aim of her occupational therapy practice in the Miami area is to bring patients back to full functionality, without pills, injections or surgery. Occupational and Physical Therapy are both offered at Hands-On Therapy by our experienced therapists who provide a comprehensive approach to your care.
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