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Pain in the Thumb Joint: What Causes It and Can It Be Fixed?

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Thumb pain is something many of us experience at one time or another and can severely affect our quality of life.

Thumb pain can be due to an injury — such as a fracture or other significant injury after a traumatic episode — but that is not commonly the case. Most people experience thumb pain due to some other cause.

The thumb is responsible for much of the function of our hands and is why thumb pain or dysfunction can have such a severe impact on our lives. It can make simple things like brushing your teeth, opening a jar or getting dressed become a challenge.

What causes thumb pain?

A common cause of thumb pain is arthritis, which becomes more common with age. Women tend to be more affected than men, though anyone can develop thumb arthritis.

Arthritis causes the cartilage lubricating your joints to wear thin. This can happen slowly over time and with increased years of usage. It also can occur in people with a family history of arthritis.

Cartilage can wear out completely and lead to bone-on-bone arthritis. This can become extremely painful and cause people to avoid using their thumb to decease symptoms.

The carpometacarpal joint, or the basilar joint of the thumb, is most commonly affected in thumb arthritis cases. Every pound of force applied during a pinching motion can cause up to 20 pounds of force on that joint. Naturally, this can lead to the “wearing out” of this joint over time.

For patients experiencing thumb pain, an examination by an orthopedic surgeon can help determine whether arthritis may be the cause. An X-ray can help confirm the presence of arthritis and determine how severe it might be.

Treatment for thumb arthritis

There are many treatment options available for patients with thumb joint arthritis.

Resting and modifying certain activities may relieve symptoms initially. Additional treatments can include splinting, occupational therapy, anti-inflammatory medications and steroid injections.

In cases that do not respond to conservative treatment, your doctor might discuss and recommend a surgical procedure known as a “CMC arthroplasty.” For patients who are experiencing a diminished quality of life, this might be the best option.

The surgery takes less than an hour, and patients typically go home the same day.

What to expect after a CMC arthroplasty

Ochsner doctors perform a CMC arthroplasty in a way that typically restores excellent function and strength to the thumb and dramatically decreases pain. Most patients return to the same activities they enjoyed before the surgery, and with much less pain.

During a CMC arthroplasty, your surgeon will remove the trapezium — one of the small bones of the wrist — contributing to the pain. Once that painful portion of the joint is removed, your surgeon will use a tendon of your forearm to suspend and stabilize your thumb and provide a cushion where the trapezium bone was removed.

After surgery, patients will begin occupational therapy within one to two weeks to regain range of motion in their thumb. A splint is worn much of the time for about one month and discontinued within six weeks.

If you are experiencing symptoms of thumb arthritis, make an appointment with one of Ochsner’s hand specialists for a more thorough evaluation.

Dr. Dunbar specializes in thumb pain and other conditions involving the hand, wrist and elbow. Schedule an appointment with Dr. Dunbar through MyOchsner, or by calling 504.842.HAND.

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