Arthritis in the Thumb

What causes arthritis in the thumb?

Affecting 50 million adults, arthritis is currently the leading cause of disability in the United States. There are over a hundred different types of arthritis, which is inflammation that affects the joints of the body. As common as this disease is, there is still a lot that is not understood. Basically, however, for most types of arthritis, aging, overuse, disease or injury affects the cartilage or synovial fluid that protects the bones in the joints from irritating or damaging each other. This results in pain, which is often severe, swelling and loss of strength and range of motion.

Thumb arthritis is generally related to aging, which leads to the cartilage in the carpometacarpal (CMC) joint, the joint between the thumb and the wrist, being worn away. Once the cartilage wears away to a certain point, the ends of the bones are able to rub together, creating more and more damage. Friction or pressure on bone tissue can also create new growth, which is why thumb arthritis is often accompanied by bone spurs along the edge of the thumb joint. As this progresses, it becomes increasingly difficult to do a wide range of everyday tasks, like holding a pen or fork, opening jars or turning doorknobs.

Osteoarthritis, which is known as the “wear and tear” arthritis, is most often the cause of arthritis in the thumb. That said, rheumatoid arthritis, which is more commonly found in the other joints of the hand, can also cause arthritis in the thumb. 

Symptoms of Arthritis in the Thumb

As we start to get older, it seems new symptoms are popping up every day and sometimes it is hard to know what is causing what. How do we know if arthritis has started to set up in one of our thumbs? The first sign is almost always pain, and it usually feels worse when trying to use that thumb to grip an object or do something that requires strength from the thumb. Other signs and symptoms to look for include:

  • Swelling around the base of the thumb
  • Soreness or tenderness
  • Loss of strength
  • Difficulty grasping objects
  • Less ability to use the thumb and forefinger to pinch anything
  • Decreased range of motion
  • Lumps around or enlargement of the joint between the thumb and the wrist

Contributing Risk Factors

There are certain risk factors that can make it more likely that you will develop arthritis of the thumb. Those that appear to be the most significant include:

  • Being over 40 
  • Female
  • Overweight
  • Heredity
  • Prior fractures or sprains
  • Repetitive stress on thumb joint from jobs or stress


There is currently no cure for osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis. There may be a period of remission when symptoms are absent or less severe, but this is typically only temporary. Treatment options include conservative, non-surgical methods, as well as several types of surgery for the most severe cases. Often, patients with disorders of the thumb may also present with other syndromes affecting the wrist or hand.  The most common treatment options are:

  • Medication to control pain
  • Splints to limit movement and provide support
  • Corticosteroid injections for pain relief and to help with reducing inflammation
  • Surgical procedures, which include fusing joints, repositioning bones, removing bones or replacing part of the joint with a graft from another tendon in the body

At Long Island Spine Rehabilitation Medicine, our physicians are committed to more than just treating your symptoms. We strongly believe that each individual is best served through an integrative treatment plan. We focus on finding the underlying cause and providing non-surgical, evidence-based solutions tailored to your specific condition and needs. If you are experiencing joint pain in your thumb or other joint or have questions about any other service, we invite you to schedule a consultation by using our convenient online form by clicking here