Thumb Pain: Putting you in control

Thumb pain is a condition that can limit one’s daily performance with common everyday tasks such as writing, texting, and cooking. It is helpful to explore reasons for thumb pain and self-treatment strategies to manage thumb pain.  This article will discuss one of the more common thumb conditions, osteoarthritis.

One common reason for pain at the base of one’s thumb is osteoarthritis. Everyone is likely to get arthritis in their joints as part of the normal aging process. The key is having a few tools to help ease the symptoms and maintain your function once thumb pain occurs.

How do you know if it is osteoarthritis? The only sure way to identify osteoarthritis in the thumb with radiographs (x-rays).  However, there are signs of osteoarthritis that you can look for that will help you decide if you may have arthritis in your thumb. Pain associated with osteoarthritis is usually isolated to the joint. The joint located at the base of your thumb is called the carpometacarpal joint (CMC) or the basal joint of the thumb. With osteoarthritis the joint becomes inflamed from arthritic changes aggravated by use. The CMC joint is the most common area for osteoarthritis to surface in the hand. Osteoarthritis at the base of the thumb is increased with a pinch grasp (similar to what you would use when using a key). Remember that osteoarthritis is part of the normal aging progress. Wrinkles are a normal part of the aging process. Osteoarthritis can be considered “wrinkles on the inside”.

Keeping your thumb moving is key to managing arthritis.  Movement helps to increase blood flow and lubricates the joints.  Motion is lotion!  Here are a few simple motion exercises to reduce your pain.

Another way to ease the pain in your thumb is gently massaging the area with a topical analgesic. Massage can help ease the pain by increasing blood flow to the area and decrease inflammation. Most topical analgesics have menthol in them which helps to ease pain symptoms.

In addition to motion and massage, learning to use your joints effectively can help ease the pain and slow the progression of your symptoms. The use of larger handles on common tools will reduce the amount of force your thumb has to exert with common tasks and decrease the pain associated with that tasks. For example, when writing it will be helpful to invest in a larger barreled pen to reduce the stress on the CMC joint of the thumb. Tools used in the garden or the kitchen can be purchased with larger grips or built up with tape to reduce the stress on your hand joints.

It is important to work smarter not harder and choosing the right tool for the job when dealing with thumb pain. Taking a proactive approach puts you in the driver seat and will help prevent or reduce thumb pain.

Here’s to a “thumbs up” kind of day.


Dr. Lorie Barker is an occupational therapist at Colorado In Motion

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