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Answering Questions About Thumb Pain (CMC Arthritis)

Author: Jon J. Hanlon, M.D.

Are you suffering from thumb pain? Has it gotten to the point that you can no longer perform basic tasks like cooking or getting dressed? Is a splint the only way you can find any relief at all? If so, then you might have carpometacarpal (CMC) arthritis – also known as “thumb arthritis.” Based on what I’ve seen with many of my arthritic patients, I put together a short thumb arthritis Q&A that I’d like to share with you.

Why am I having pain only in the thumb?

The answer to this question will vary patient to patient. However, there are a number of reasons your arthritis may be limited to the thumb. CMC arthritis can be genetic; it can also be caused by past injuries (including hand fractures); also, some patients simply have more lax joints, which can lead to CMC arthritis.

The carpometacarpal joint has a very different anatomy than all the other finger joints. Its unique saddle shape and wide range of motion could make it more prone to be the first joint affected by degenerative arthritis of the hand.

What is CMC arthritis?

In short, CMC arthritis is osteoarthritis (OA) in the carpometacarpal joint. Osteoarthritis is the wearing down of cartilage layers between the joint. Over time, bones rub against each other, having lost their cartilage cushion, which causes the pain associated with OA.

What are the signs and symptoms of thumb arthritis?

  • Pain at the base of the thumb.

  • Pain may be worse when at rest or at night.

  • Difficulty pinching or grasping.

Also, it’s worth noting that thumb arthritis is most common in women over the age of 40.

How do you diagnose CMC arthritis?

An orthopaedic physician can typically make a diagnosis by evaluating your hand and performing several motion tests. Your medical history can also be helpful. X-rays may be used to confirm the diagnosis.

What kind of treatment options are available for thumb pain?

The first treatment option is almost always non-surgical – e.g. arthritis medications and splints. However, these treatment options only target symptoms and may not provide pain relief for more advanced cases of thumb arthritis. Joint reconstruction, fusion, and tendon rerouting may be used to treat CMC arthritis.

For more information about the treatment of CMC arthritis, please contact Hedley Orthopaedic Institute at 602-553-3113.
Please consult with your physician before undertaking any form of medical treatment or adopting any exercise program or dietary guidelines.

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