Thumb Arthritis: Exploring Diagnosis and Treatment Options

If you are experiencing persistent joint pain or stiffness in your thumbs, it could be a sign of thumb arthritis. This type of arthritis occurs when the cartilage in the carpometacarpal (CMC) joints wears down over time, leading to reduced mobility and stiffness in the affected joint.

Thumb arthritis is most commonly diagnosed in individuals over 50, and it is more common in women than in men. The best course of treatment for this condition will depend on the stage of arthritis and any previous treatment that has been tried.

If you have been diagnosed with thumb arthritis, it is important to consult with an orthopedic specialist to determine the most effective treatment plan. 

With the right treatment and care, it is possible to improve your symptoms and maintain mobility in your thumb, allowing you to continue your daily activities. So, without further ado, let’s discuss the treatment for thumb arthritis in detail below.

Symptoms of Thumb Arthritis

People with thumb arthritis usually notice the following signs and symptoms.

  • Pain and Stiffness in the Thumb

Pain in the lower thumb is the first and the most common sign of the onset of thumb arthritis. You may also notice that your thumb joint becomes stiffer than normal when you bend or move it. 

  • Weakness in the Thumb

The patients will also experience reduced strength, especially between the thumb and adjacent fingers. 

  • Difficulty Gripping or Pinching Objects

Patients may struggle to grip or pinch objects. For instance, they may find it hard to do daily activities like turning a key or knob or even opening jars. Over time, the pain increases, resulting in a throbbing sensation that can disrupt their performance in daily activities.

  • Swelling or Tenderness 

Swelling or formation of enlarged bony appearance (bone spurs) of the joint at the base of your thumb where it meets the wrist. It is due to the damage to the joint that causes the growth of new bone aligned along the existing bone. 

Diagnosis of Thumb Arthritis

If you experience this condition’s recurring symptoms, consider opting for a proper diagnosis. Here we have listed out the procedures for a thumb arthritis diagnosis.

  • Physical Examination of the Thumb

As the first step in diagnosing thumb arthritis, your healthcare professional will perform a complete physical examination of your thumb. They will examine the range of motion in your thumb and detect the grip strength by instructing you to lift tiny objects using your thumb. 

This examination will help them determine if there are any problems or variations in your thumb’s movements.

  • Imaging Tests

Imaging tests such as X-rays, MRI scans, and CT scans are performed to confirm the diagnosis of the condition. It will provide a detailed image of the joint and other soft tissues, revealing the exact location of the cartilage loss and formation of bone spurs.

  •  Joint Fluid Analysis

This examination or analysis identifies the damaged cartilage affecting the joints. The analysis helps examine the physical quality of the synovial fluid of the joints extracted, such as colour and thickness, to detect the infection.

Treatment Options for Thumb Arthritis

The choice of thumb arthritis treatment depends on the severity of the condition and the accompanying symptoms. The primary aim of treatment is to alleviate the pain in the lower thumb and enhance the individual’s quality of life. After a proper diagnosis, the orthopaedic specialist may recommend a combination of various treatment options.

Non-Surgical Treatments

  • Medications

Medication is an effective non-surgical approach to relieving pain that includes

  1. Topical medications like capsaicin or diclofenac are directly applied to the skin to reduce stiffness, swelling, and pain.
  2. Over-the-counter and prescribed pain-relieving NSAID medications (Non-steroid anti-inflammatory drugs) such as acetaminophen (Tylenol), naproxen sodium (Aleve), Ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB), celecoxib (Celebrex) or tramadol (Ultram, Conzip).
  • Splints or Braces

Splints and braces reduce your movement and prevent the thumb from moving out from the position. It will encourage proper positions and rest your joints proactively. It is generally worn throughout the day or during specific activities that cause stress on your joints. 

You can also try using a splint at night while sleeping to ensure a neutral position and stabilize your thumb joints.

  • Physical Therapy

The therapy procedure for thumb arthritis aims to improve the mobility and function of your joints and the surrounding muscles. It is often suggested for patients who have developed the condition due to injury. 

A professional therapist will work with you to assess your thumb’s strength and range of motion. Then they will design an individualised plan with exercise and activities to reduce pain and swelling. 

Surgical Treatments

If the conservative treatment options are ineffective in improving the symptoms of thumb arthritis or if you still experience pain, your healthcare professional might recommend surgery as the last option. Some options are 

  • Joint Fusion

Joint fusion, also known as arthrodesis, is where the bones in the affected thumb joints are fused permanently. The fused joints can load weight without pain, but the flexibility is compromised.

  • Trapeziectomy

In this surgical procedure, one of the bones, the trapezium in your thumb joint, will be removed.

  • Osteotomy

The bones in the affected thumb joint are realigned or repositioned to correct the deformities. 

  • Joint replacement

Arthroplasty (the other name for joint replacement) involves removing and replacing a part of complete thumb joints with a graft from one of the tendons. 

These surgeries are typically performed on an outpatient basis. After the surgery, you can wear a cast or splint for up to six weeks. You are assisted with physical therapy to regain strength and movement in your hand. 


Thumb arthritis might be a common condition. However, it will make your everyday movement challenging and uncomfortable. It does mean that you have to lead an unconventional life. Opting for early diagnosis and timely treatment will help you alleviate the pain and maintain the functionality of your hand. 

A minimally-invasive, conservative treatment approach can best treat the early stage of the condition, while the severe condition requires invasive treatments such as injection therapy or surgery. In a nutshell, ensure timely treatment and implement healthy lifestyle changes to move forward with your active lifestyle and live in complete comfort again.

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