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What is arthritis of the thumb?

Basal joint arthritis, also called arthritis of the thumb, occurs when the joint at the base of your thumb develops arthritis. Arthritis is a disease which attacks or destroys a joint, causing severe pain and hindering functionality. There are many types of arthritis, but osteoarthritis, also known as "wear and tear" arthritis, affects the joint at the base of the thumb more than others. Basal joint arthritis is a degenerative disease that wears down the cartilage surrounding the joint. Cartilage is a protective covering that surrounds the ends of the bones and allows them to glide and move smoothly. Without the cartilage, the bone ends rub against one another, causing both friction and damage to the bones and the joint.


The following are the most common symptoms of basal joint arthritis. However, each individual may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:

  • Mild to severe pain during activities that involve gripping or pinching. Such activities can include:
    • Opening a door or using a manual can opener
    • Snapping your fingers
    • Writing with a pen or pencil
    • Eating with a utensil
    • Turning a key
    • Swelling and tenderness of the thumb, especially at the base
    • Aching discomfort after prolonged use of the thumb
    • Loss of strength during activities involving use of the thumb
    • An enlarged appearance which makes the thumb appear to be out of place
    • A bump over the joint
    • Limited motion of the thumb

Risk factors

In many cases, the cause of basal joint arthritis is never determined. There are certain risk factors, however, which appear to increase the chance of developing this disease:

  • Age and gender—Females and people over 40 years of age are at a greater risk for developing basal joint arthritis.
  • Injuries—Even after completely healing from an injury, a joint can remain weak and susceptible to arthritis of the thumb. Fractures, cartilage damage and torn tendons or ligaments possibly can contribute to the development of arthritis in the joint.
  • Overuse—Repetitive motions used for work-related or daily activities can increase the risk of developing basal joint arthritis. Examples of jobs or hobbies that require repeated use of the thumb include gardening, playing a musical instrument, mechanics, sewing and factory work.

Treatment options

Treatments for basal joint arthritis range from medications, cortisone injections and activity changes to joint reconstruction surgery if nonsurgical approaches are no longer relieving pain. Although people with sedentary jobs may be able to return to work two weeks after surgery, full recovery time can take approximately two to three months or more.

Our physicians can treat conditions in any one of the 27 bones in the human hand, as well as other problems that affect the hand and wrist.

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