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Why Do I Have Thumb Pain?

  • Jun 7 2022

Discomfort in the thumb can be a real pain. You use your thumbs in about half of all hand functions throughout the day, so when you have significant thumb pain, it can cause mild irritation or serious disability. Learn more about conditions that affect the thumb, the symptoms they cause, and when you need to see a specialist.

Why Does My Thumb Hurt?

There are many potential causes of thumb pain. You might have a mild injury that heals on its own, a degenerative and chronic condition like arthritis, or a fracture that needs surgical repair. You might have an issue that requires treatment if you have these symptoms:

An older man rubs the base of his thumb with the other hand.

  • Sudden onset of pain in the thumb after an accident or injury
  • Pain in the base of the thumb joint
  • Tingling, numbness, or weakness at the base of the thumb and into the wrist and fingers
  • Warmth and swelling in the thumb joints
  • Popping or locking in the thumb joints
  • Difficulty and pain when straightening the thumb

Conditions That Cause Thumb Pain

Pain and other symptoms in the thumb might indicate one of several conditions, from acute injuries to chronic problems:

  • Arthritis. Arthritis is a chronic degenerative condition caused by tissue loss in joints. As a joint loses cushioning tissue, the bones rub against each other causing pain, redness, and swelling. Osteoarthritis occurs with the normal wear and tear of aging, but other types of arthritis can cause damage and symptoms in thumb joints.
    An image of two hands shows one rubbing the thumb of the other with a hot spot indicating pain.
  • Pulled ligament. This is also known as a sprain. You might get a sprain when you jam your thumb into something hard. It commonly occurs during sports. The symptoms of a pulled ligament in the thumb include pain, swelling, and stiffness.
  • Fracture. Fractured thumb symptoms are distinguished by sudden onset and intensity. An accident or injury followed by significant pain in the thumb could mean you fractured the bone.
  • Trigger thumb. The medical term for this is stenosing tenosynovitis, a condition that also occurs in the fingers and affects the flexor tendons. Certain medical injuries and applied forces to the thumb can cause it. Symptoms include tenderness at the base of the thumb, pain when trying to straighten the thumb, and a feeling that the joints are popping, locking, or catching when moving.
  • Mallet thumb. Also known as baseball finger, this injury occurs when an object like a baseball strikes and overextends the tip of the thumb. This injures the tendon at the end joint of the thumb. It causes pain and swelling and is characterized by the inability to straighten the tip of the thumb.  
  • De Quervain’s Tenosynovitis. This condition is often caused by repetitive use of the thumb and wrist. It is an inflammation of the tendons that run along the inside of the wrist and to the thumb. Symptoms include pain and swelling in the wrist below the thumb and pain or a catching sensation when moving the thumb.

How to Relieve Arthritis Pain in the Thumb

The most common cause of any kind of joint pain is arthritis, typically osteoarthritis. You can’t correct arthritis, but it is possible to slow its progression and use a pain management plan to minimize or relieve symptoms.

 A hand specialist places a thumb brace on a patient’s hand.

Pain relief for arthritis includes prescription medications and injections, as well as simple home remedies and lifestyle changes. A splint can help you limit movement in the joint. You can also modify tools and items in your home to make them easier to use. Over-the-counter medications and icing provide relief for many people.

When Do I Need to See a Doctor?

Limited thumb function can be an annoyance, but it can also keep you from doing things you enjoy. If thumb pain is getting in the way of everyday activities, it’s probably time to see a specialist.

You can start with your doctor, but they will likely refer you to a joint and orthopedic specialist. A specialist will evaluate your symptoms, run tests or imaging scans, and diagnose the cause of the discomfort. Treatment varies depending on the cause. For instance, treatment for a broken thumb might be a splint or surgery, depending on the severity or complexity of the damage.

If your thumb pain is beginning to interfere with your daily life, it’s time to see a specialist. Contact the orthopedic experts at SI Ortho by requesting an appointment online

Posted in: Hand & Wrist