Arthritis occurs when cartilage in a joint wears away and the bones rub together. This causes damage, pain, and inflammation. It can develop in any joint, including in the thumb.

Thumb arthritis usually occurs after 50 years of age and is more common in women than men. A doctor may refer to the condition as “basal thumb arthritis” or “thumb basal joint arthritis.”

Arthritis of the thumb can be painful, and various treatments and techniques can reduce symptoms and improve the function of the joint.

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Photo editing by Stephen Kelly; Yok_onepiece/Shutterstock

Thumb arthritis occurs in the joint at the base of the thumb. It is usually a type of osteoarthritis, which results from gradual wear in the joint.

In a typical joint, rubbery tissue called cartilage covers the ends of opposing bones. The cartilage cushions the two bones, preventing any friction during movement.

In people with thumb arthritis, the cartilage wears away. Without this barrier between them, the two bones rub together.

As the bones rub together, they create friction and damage the joint, causing pain, inflammation, and other symptoms.

The first symptom of thumb arthritis is usually pain at the base of the thumb. It may occur when a person grips or pinches an object or otherwise uses the thumb to apply force.

Other symptoms of thumb arthritis include:

  • swelling at the base
  • aching, discomfort, or tenderness at the base
  • a limited range of motion in the joint
  • the base seeming enlarged or bony-looking
  • a loss of strength in the thumb joint

The symptoms can vary in severity. They may be mild at first and get worse over time, especially without treatment.

Osteoarthritis is responsible for most arthritis cases in the thumb. This means that the issue stems from gradual cartilage degeneration.

Thumb arthritis usually occurs as part of the regular aging process, and it is more common in adults over 50. People who have had fractures or other injuries to the thumb joint are also more likely to develop thumb arthritis.

Other factors that may increase the risk of thumb arthritis include:

  • obesity
  • hobbies or jobs that stress the thumb joint
  • computer work for extended periods
  • diseases affecting the cartilage, such as rheumatoid arthritis

Before diagnosing thumb arthritis, a doctor typically examines the joint and assess:

  • the current level of pain
  • which movements make the pain worse
  • whether there has been a prior injury

They may also perform simple tests, such as holding the joint while the person moves their thumb to test the range of motion. During this, the doctor may listen or feel for grinding sounds or sensations. These can indicate that the bones are rubbing together.

The doctor may also assess whether the joint is warmer than the surrounding tissue, tender, or enlarged.

If the doctor suspects arthritis, they may order an X-ray for a closer examination and to check for any calcium deposits, bone spurs, or areas of erosion. Also, an X-ray can show deterioration or loss of space between the bones.

If a person has pain at or around the base of a thumb, a doctor may also check for symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome.

The severity of thumb arthritis symptoms helps guide the approach to treatment.

Arthritis is a progressive disease, meaning that it may get worse over time. No medication available that can slow the progression of arthritis in the thumb.

Treatments and care techniques may help alleviate pain and improve thumb function, however. Some options include:

  • doing exercises to strengthen the muscles around the thumb
  • taking anti-inflammatory medications to reduce swelling
  • wearing thumb and wrist supports, known as orthoses
  • avoiding activities that put pressure on the thumb
  • having steroid injections to reduce inflammation

If these approaches do not work, a person may need surgery.

Surgical options include:

  • Trapeziectomy: Removing a small bone in the joint called the trapezium can help a surgeon cushion or suspend the joint, alleviating pain. As part of this procedure, they may perform additional ligament reconstruction.
  • Thumb fusion: A surgeon may recommend fusing the thumb joint together. This will reduce the thumb’s mobility but may alleviate pain and other symptoms.
  • Implants: A variety of implantable materials can be inserted into the thumb joint. These can improve the joint’s stability and act as a barrier between the bones.

It can take from 8 weeks to 1 year to recover from thumb surgery. During this time, a person benefits from working with an occupational or physical therapist.

Thumb arthritis occurs when the cartilage in the thumb joint wears away, causing the bones in the joint to rub together. This causes friction, inflammation, damage, and pain.

With treatments and care techniques, many people are able to manage thumb arthritis and reduce the symptoms.

Arthritis can worsen over time. If it makes daily activities difficult or painful, it is essential to see a doctor for treatment.

Depending on a person’s symptoms and the progression of their arthritis, a doctor may recommend physical therapy, external joint supports, or surgery.