Swollen Thumb: Causes & Treatments
Try our free symptom checker
Get a thorough self-assessment before your visit to the doctor.
A swollen thumb may be painful and affect your day-to-day activities. Causes for a swollen thumb can arise from a bacterial infection within the nail, trauma from a injury that is affecting the thumb bones, or inflammation of the thumb joints. A sprained thumb and arthritis are the most common culprits for a swollen thumb. Read below for more information on causes and treatment options.
Common swollen thumb symptoms explained
Swelling of the thumb can be debilitating, since the thumb is so important for daily activities such as writing and manipulating objects. Unfortunately, the swollen thumb is often painful and stiff, and strength may be decreased. Swelling may occur due to conditions involving the skin, ligaments, bones, or joints between bones in the thumb. Many causes of thumb swelling can be expected to resolve with appropriate treatment.
Common accompanying symptoms of a swollen thumb
- Drainage of pus
- Small blisters
- Stiffness or weakness of the thumb
- Swelling of a thumb joint or at the tip of the thumb
What causes thumb pain and swelling?
A swollen thumb may occur due to an infection like the following.
- Bacterial infection: The skin surrounding the thumbnail can develop a bacterial infection, causing pain, redness, and swelling. Thumb swelling can also be caused by a bacterial infection of the pad of the thumb; if untreated, this infection can progress to underlying structures such as the bone. Thumb joints can also be infected by bacteria.
- Viral infection: The thumb can be infected by herpes virus via thumb sucking or nail biting when the mouth has active herpes lesions (cold sores). The infected thumb will be swollen, extremely painful, and small blisters will be present.
Any type of injury to the structures of the thumb, including bone and ligaments, can potentially cause swelling.
- Ligament sprain: A major ligament of the thumb can be injured when the thumb is forcefully pulled away from the rest of the hand, such as when you are trying to catch yourself during a fall. The thumb will be tender, bruised, and swollen.
- Bone fracture: One of the thumb bones can be broken during a fall or through trauma from an athletic event.
- Bone dislocation: The bone at the base of the thumb can be knocked out of its normal position relative to the adjacent bone of the hand, leading to swelling, pain, and an abnormal angle of the thumb.
Chronic joint disorders
Chronic disorders of the joints can manifest in the thumb leading to swelling.
- Arthritis: Multiple types of arthritis can cause swelling of the thumb joints, resulting in swelling, pain, and stiffness.
- Gout: An acute attack of gout can cause swelling and severe pain. If gout is poorly controlled over a long period of time, it can also cause hard swelling of a joint, which can enlarge and interfere with movement of the thumb.
Tumors in the area of the hand or thumb can result in swelling.
- Bone tumor: Very rarely, a swelling of the thumb could be a benign or cancerous tumor of the bone. In this case swelling develops gradually, along with pain and decreased ability to move the thumb.
- Metastasis: Also rarely, a swelling of the thumb may be a metastasis of cancer from another site in the body. Lung cancer is the most typical primary cancer.
This list does not constitute medical advice and may not accurately represent what you have.
Cellulitis is a bacterial infection of the deep layers of the skin. It can appear anywhere on the body but is most common on the feet, lower legs, and face.
The condition can develop if Staphylococcus bacteria enter broken skin through a cut, scrape, or existing skin infection such as impetigo or eczema.
Most susceptible are those with a weakened immune system, as from corticosteroids or chemotherapy, or with impaired circulation from diabetes or any vascular disease.
Symptoms arise somewhat gradually and include sore, reddened skin.
If not treated, the infection can become severe, form pus, and destroy the tissue around it. In rare cases, the infection can cause blood poisoning or meningitis.
Symptom of severe pain, fever, cold sweats, and fast heartbeat should be seen immediately by a medical provider.
Diagnosis is made through physical examination.
Treatment consists of antibiotics, keeping the wound clean, and sometimes surgery to remove any dead tissue. Cellulitis often recurs, so it is important to treat any underlying conditions and improve the immune system with rest and good nutrition.
Top Symptoms: fever, chills, facial redness, swollen face, face pain
Symptoms that always occur with cellulitis: facial redness, area of skin redness
Urgency: Primary care doctor
Arthritis is a general term for multiple conditions that cause painful inflammation and stiffness throughout the body. Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a chronic condition that is autoimmune in nature, meaning that the body's immune system which normally protects the body by att..
Dupuytren Disease, also known as Dupuytren's contracture, is a condition that gradually causes connective tissue (fascia) under the skin of the palm to thicken and become scar-like. Although Dupuytren's isn't painful, it does restrict movement. The thickened tissue forces several fingers - usually the ring and pinky fingers - to curl in toward the palm.
Top Symptoms: finger joint stiffness, hand bump, thickened skin on the finger, swollen hands, hand injury
Urgency: Primary care doctor
A thumb sprain occurs when the ligaments that connect the bones are strained by a sudden, forceful movement, usually when the thumb is stretched backward away from the palm. This is likely to occur when the thumb is directly impacted, such as partially catching a ball or falling on an outstretc..
Jammed thumbs are common in sports but may occur during daily activity.
Top Symptoms: thumb injury, thumb pain from an injury, swollen thumb, finger bruise
Symptoms that always occur with jammed thumb: thumb injury, thumb pain from an injury
Urgency: Primary care doctor
Psoriatic arthritis is a condition which causes inflammation of the joints. In most circumstances, psoriatic arthritis presents between the ages of 30 and 50 years and occurs after the manifestation of the symptoms of psoriasis, which is a disease of the skin. Psoriatic arthritis..
Non-serious finger injury
Finger injuries are very common & rarely need medical treatment.
Top Symptoms: recent finger injury, finger pain from an injury, swollen finger, severe finger pain
Symptoms that always occur with non-serious finger injury: recent finger injury
Symptoms that never occur with non-serious finger injury: bent or crooked finger
Thumb arthritis refers to inflammation of the joints of the thumb. There are a number of distinct joints in the thumb, all of which can be affected by thumb arthritis. The inflammation may be due to "wear-and-tear" or osteoarthritis, a thumb injury, or rheumatoid arthritis.
How to relieve a swollen thumb
When a swollen thumb is an emergency
Seek emergency swollen thumb treatment if:
- You have severe swelling, pain, or numbness after an injury, and/or the thumb appears to be at an abnormal angle: Quick treatment will help prevent long-term complications
- You have rapidly progressing swelling and pain of a thumb joint: It is especially important to get immediate treatment if you also have a fever or other signs of systemic illness.
When to see a doctor for a swollen thumb
In some cases, even though emergency care isn't necessary, you may need medical evaluation and treatment. Make an appointment with your medical provider if:
- You have decreased ability to carry out daily activities: Due to stiffness, weakness, or pain of the thumb
- You have thumb swelling that is worsening or staying the same over time
- You have another condition: You have previously been diagnosed with arthritis, gout, or cancer and have new thumb swelling.
- You have drainage from the thumb
Medical treatments for a swollen thumb
Your medical provider may prescribe one or more of the following treatments, depending on the cause of the swollen thumb symptoms:
- Antibiotics and drainage: For a bacterial infection
- Antiviral medication: For a viral infection
- Treatment for an underlying medical condition: Such as arthritis or gout
- A splint: To ensure normal healing after an injury
- Referral for surgical management
- Steroid injection for arthritis
At-home treatments for a swollen thumb
Some home treatments may help with swollen thumb symptoms, such as the following.
- Ice: Applying an ice pack for up to 15 minutes a few times a day can help ease pain and swelling due to arthritis or an injury.
- Avoid certain food and drinks: Avoiding shellfish, red meat, and alcohol can help prevent attacks of gout.
- Use pain relievers: Ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) or other NSAIDs can help with swelling and pain due to arthritis or an injury.
- Soaking: Soaking the thumb in warm water can help with pain, swelling, and stiffness.
FAQs about swollen thumb
Can a swollen thumb be due to an infection?
Yes, the thumb may swell due to an infection. A bacterial infection of the skin around the thumbnail or the pad of the thumb can cause swelling,redness, and pain. The thumb joints can also be infected by bacteria, especially if there was a preceding injury that broke the skin. In addition, the thumb can be infected by herpes virus after exposure to cold sores in the mouth.
Why does gout cause a swollen thumb?
Attacks of gout occur periodically due to high levels of uric acid. Crystallization of this substance within a joint, such as a thumb joint, causes inflammation that then leads to swelling and severe pain. If you have gout over a long period of time and it is not well controlled with medications, crystals can bind with other substances to create a large, hard nodule within the joint.
What kinds of injuries cause a swollen thumb?
Any type of injury to the structures that make up the thumb will likely lead to swelling. One common injury is a sprain of the ulnar collateral ligament, which stabilizes the joint at the base of the thumb. A thumb bone can be fractured, or the bone at the base of the thumb can be dislocated.
Will I need surgery to fix a swollen thumb?
In some cases, surgery is necessary to address the cause of a swollen thumb. Serious injuries may require surgical management, such as if the major ligament of the thumb is completely torn. Surgery may also be indicated for severe arthritis that is uncontrolled by other treatments. In the rare case that swelling of the thumb is caused by a tumor, surgical removal will likely be required.
Why is my thumb swollen and stiff?
When stiffness is present in addition to swelling, arthritis is the most likely cause. Arthritis of the thumb is most commonly due to osteoarthritis, which tends to occur with aging. However, thumb arthritis can also occur as part of rheumatoid or psoriatic arthritis. Any type of thumb arthritis will involve pain, stiffness, and swelling, resulting in difficulty using the thumb for daily activities such as gripping objects.
Questions your doctor may ask about swollen thumb
- Have you ever been diagnosed with diabetes?
- Have you ever been diagnosed with cancer?
- Do you have these contractures that limit the movement of your fingers? (See picture)
- Do any of your body parts (e.g., toes, hands, ears) feel cold?
Self-diagnose with our free Buoy Assistant if you answer yes on any of these questions.
Lauren is a resident physician in family medicine at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She earned her medical degree at the University of Pennsylvania and her undergraduate degree at Oberlin College. Lauren also has an interest in teaching as well as experience with college tutoring and writing MCAT preparatory materials. She believes family medicine challenges her to maintain a broad field of medical knowledge and she hopes to work in an academic setting in the future. In her free time, Lauren enjoys running, reading, and visiting historic sites.