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Thumb Osteoarthritis

What is osteoarthritis of the thumb?

Osteoarthritis (OA) is a common inflammatory condition that affects the joints, which can cause pain, stiffness, and difficulty with everyday tasks.

Your thumb, like other joints, constantly undergo a normal balance of remodelling and repair from everyday stresses which usually goes unnoticed. 

Sometimes if we do more than usual, or there is an injury, this balance may be disturbed causing pain, swelling or heat in the joint. This is known as a flare up and may last for up to 24 weeks. 

What are the symptoms?

People may experience a range of different symptoms from mild to severe, such as:

  • Pain at the base of the thumb and towards the wrist
  • Limitation in activities such as: gripping, lifting, and opening jars
  • Altered shape. Over the years you may notice that your thumb joint appears bigger.
  • Some experience instability of the thumb
  • You may experience grinding in the thumb joint
  • Stiffness is worse after periods of rest, or first thing in the morning but eases within 30 minutes

What are the causes?

The exact cause of osteoarthritis is unclear.  People often think it is only related to age; however, this is not true, there are other factors to consider such as:

  • Gender - It is more common in women than men
  • Previous history of Gout or Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Previous injury to the thumb
  • Previous surgery to the thumb
  • Age - over 50
  • Obesity
  • Diabetes
  • Thyroid problems
  • Smoking

For further information regarding stopping smoking, exercise, mental health, and weight management, please click here to visit our "Healthy You" page. 

What can I do to help myself?

thumb OA infographic

What else can I do?

Increasing general aerobic exercises such as brisk walking, cycling, or swimming have been shown to help. You can also do regular exercise focusing on movement and strengthening the hand and thumb. We have included some exercises below for you to try:

Thumb osteoarthritis exercises - EASY

Thumb osteoarthritis exercises - MODERATE

Thumb osteoarthritis exercises - ADVANCED

Do I need an x-ray or a scan?

In most cases, no. A good history and physical examination of your hand alone provides enough information to diagnose your problem. Scans and x-rays are not always useful for diagnosing thumb osteoarthritis. While a scan or x-ray may provide information it rarely alters the treatment plan. 

Imaging findings are very poorly linked with pain and often people with no pain have very similar findings on their scans/x-rays to those that do. X-rays and scans can help for a small number of people in certain situations and will be recommended by a healthcare professional if required.

What about a steroid injection?

A steroid injection may be considered to help control the pain in some circumstances. The risks and benefits would be discussed with your Physiotherapist or GP and is not always an appropriate option for all patients.

Symptoms to check

Click the plus sign to see a list of problems that could be a sign you may need to be checked urgently

Get advice from 111 now if:

  • the pain is severe and started after an injury or accident, like a fall
  • if you have cut yourself and can no longer move your fingers or wrist normally
  • you heard a snap, grinding or popping noise at the time of an injury
  • you are unable to move or hold things
  • your hand or wrist has changed shape or colour
  • you have a very high temperature, feel hot and shivery, and have redness or heat around the hand, wrist or fingers – this can be a sign of infection
  • you have any severe tingling or loss of sensation in your hand and it wont go away

Immediate medical advice is available by contacting NHS 111

Referral Information

If you are struggling with managing your wrist & hand pain you can self-refer to a physiotherapist for further guidance.