March 23, 2022

Thumb arthritis can be a real pain for older adults

People who feel pain in their dominant hand when opening a jar or turning a doorknob may be developing thumb arthritis. If you are experiencing this pain, contact the Orthopedics and Sports Medicine team at The University of Kansas Health System St. Francis Campus to schedule an appointment.

What is thumb arthritis and its symptoms?

Thumb arthritis involves the protective cartilage that provides a smooth cushion at the ends of our bones. In the case of thumb arthritis, the condition occurs in the joint of the thumb where the first metacarpal bone of the hand and the trapezium carpal bone of the wrist meet.

As we age, the smooth surface of the cartilage between the 2 bones starts to deteriorate and roughen. “This causes pain at the base of the thumb, especially with grip and pinch activities,” says Lindsey Winterscheidt, PA-C, orthopedic surgery, at The University of Kansas Health System St. Francis Campus. “It can also cause decreased pinch strength, clicking or grinding at the involved joint. After prolonged use, aching, stiffness, swelling and decreased range of motion can also occur.”

Unfortunately, it is difficult to prevent thumb arthritis as it generally results from wear and tear of the joint surface over time.  Basic thumb stretching exercises can help preserve some motion of the thumb, but it will not slow the progression of the disease.

Who is most at risk for developing thumb arthritis?

While this condition can affect men, it occurs most commonly in women between the ages of 40-70 years. Other risk factors include:

  • Obesity
  • Certain hereditary conditions like a malformed joint
  • Previous injuries to your thumb
  • Diseases like rheumatoid arthritis that change the structure and function of the cartilage
  • Activities/jobs that put high stress on the thumb joint

A patient should see a doctor for this problem if symptoms happen daily and limit their abilities to do things without pain. X-rays are typically obtained for diagnosis confirmation and are helpful to assist with monitoring the progression of the disease over time.

What are the best treatment methods for thumb arthritis?

In the early stages of the disease, treatment usually includes a combination of non-surgical treatment options, such as:

  • Ice to reduce pain and swelling
  • Anti-inflammatory medications
  • Resting the thumb in a thumb splint for a few weeks
  • Cortisone injections

Surgery, says Winterscheidt, only occurs when the above non-surgical treatments are no longer effective. “Surgery is done on an outpatient basis,” she said, “with a few different options.”

The type of surgery will depend on the patient’s individual situation. The options include:

  • Joint fusion – The bones in the affected joint are permanently fused. The fused joint can bear weight without pain but has no flexibility.
  • Osteotomy – The bones in the affected joint are repositioned to help correct deformities.
  • Trapeziectomy – One of the bones in the thumb joint is removed.
  • Joint replacement – All or part of the affected joint is removed and replaced with a graft from other tendons.

“After surgery,” says Winterscheidt, “patients can expect to wear a cast or splint over the thumb and wrist for up to 8 weeks, depending on which surgical procedure is used. Once the cast is removed, physical therapy is beneficial to aid in regaining strength and movement of the hand. Full recovery from surgery takes several months.”

To learn more about Orthopedic and Sports Medicine services at St. Francis Campus, visit our website or call one of our orthopedic offices to make an appointment:

  • Tallgrass - (785) 233-7491
  • Brewster - (785) 379-4600
Share this: