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Arthritis, Infections & Broken Thumbs: Top Thumb Pain Causes

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Last updated August 31, 2020

Thumb pain quiz

Take a quiz to find out what's causing your pain.

Thumb pain may be accompanied by stiffness, difficulty gripping, swelling, and more, and causes range from trauma to infections and diseases. Read more below to learn about thumb pain, possible causes, possible treatments, and more.

Thumb pain quiz

Take a quiz to find out what's causing your pain.

Take thumb pain quiz

Thumb pain symptoms

Texting, posting, tweeting, emailing — where would we be without it all? This technology, although convenient on the go, can suddenly become a chore when thumb pain strikes. Thumb pain symptoms can make everyday activities difficult. It can be nearly impossible to grip onto anything, including door knobs, the steering wheel, and your morning cup of coffee.

Common accompanying symptoms of thumb pain

If you're experiencing thumb pain symptoms, it's likely to also experience:

  • Localized pain in the thumb joint
  • Stiffness
  • Difficulty gripping
  • Tenderness
  • Swelling
  • Increased difficulty completing once simple tasks

There are a variety of reasons that could be behind your thumb pain symptoms. Whether it's arthritis, an infection, or carpal tunnel syndrome, finding the root cause of your discomfort is the first step towards finding relief.

Thumb pain causes

Thumb pain doesn't have to get in the way of your daily activities. Though it may take time and a bit of detective work, finding the cause behind your discomfort isn't as difficult as you might think.

Traumatic causes

Trauma to the thumb will result in pain.

  • Accident: Hitting your thumb with a hammer or jamming it in a doorway are just two ways you can injure your thumb. Unless you suspect a broken bone or have unstoppable bleeding, resting the thumb is your best course of treatment.
  • Overuse: Using any part of the body more than usual can lead to muscle strain and soreness. Texting, playing video games, or mixing up a few extra batches of your grandma's famous chocolate chip cookies can lead to temporary strain and soreness.
  • Broken bone: There are several types of bone fractures that can cause thumb pain symptoms. All have different treatments and will need a proper medical diagnosis.

Infectious causes

Infectious causes of thumb pain include the following.

  • Septic arthritis: While uncommon, an infection of the thumb joint warrants swift medical attention. Antibiotics are almost always used and, in severe cases, drainage is required to prevent permanent joint damage.
  • Tendon sheath infection: Tendons connect muscles to bones and help control specific movements. A sheath protects a tendon. If the sheath in your thumb becomes infected, movement will be painful, and your grip will weaken.

Conditions and diseases

There are several different forms of arthritis but one that affects the hands the most is osteoarthritis. As cartilage breaks down, bones begin to rub on other bones. This decreases grip strength and hinders your normal range of motion.

Other risk factors

There are several factors that can increase your risk of thumb arthritis which include:

  • Being female
  • Being over 40 years old
  • Being overweight
  • Having malformed joints or joint deformities
  • Repetitive injuries to your thumb
  • Excessive use and stress on thumb joint

This list does not constitute medical advice and may not accurately represent what you have.

Wrist bone (scaphoid) fracture

A fracture is the medical term for a broken bone. When a person falls on their outstretched hand, the scaphoid is the bone that is most likely to break. It is located on the thumb side of the wrist, in the area where the wrist bends.

You should visit your primary care physician within the next 24 hours. The doctor will confirm your diagnosis with an X-Ray. Treatment will most likely involve putting the pieces of bone back together, requiring anesthesia and/or surgery.

Rarity: Ultra rare

Top Symptoms: hand weakness, swollen thumb, wrist pain that gets worse when gripping something, difficulty moving the thumb, wrist pain from an injury

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Thumb pain quiz

Take a quiz to find out what's causing your pain.

Take thumb pain quiz

Thumb arthritis

Arthritis of the thumb is common with aging and occurs when cartilage wears away from the ends of bones that form the thumb joint. This can cause severe pain, swelling and decreased strength and range of motion, making it difficult to do simple tasks, such as turning doorknobs and opening jars.

You should visit your primary care physician to confirm the diagnosis and discuss treatment options for managing symptoms.

Sprained thumb

Ligaments are strong bands of tissue that hold together bones at joints. The thumb has several ligaments that support it, and these ligaments may get sprained if a person breaks a fall with their thumb. When ligaments become sprained, they do not necessarily tear. Low-grade (or mild) sprains happen when microscopic tears appear in the ligament, causing pain. A sprained thumb may limit a person's ability to grasp items. Other symptoms can involve bruising, tenderness, and swelling.

You should visit your primary care physician for an X-Ray. Although often a sprained thumb may be ignored with the hope that it will heal itself, if a ligament injury is not diagnosed and treated correctly, chronic instability may result.

Rheumatoid arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic inflammatory disorder that affects the lining of the joints, causing them to become thickened and painful. It can also affect other parts of the body such as the heart, lungs, eyes, and circulatory system.

Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease, which means the body's immune system turns against itself for unknown reasons.

Most at risk are women from ages 30-60. Other risk factors are family history, smoking, and obesity.

Early symptom include warm, swollen, stiff, painful joints, especially the fingers and toes; fatigue; and fever. Usually, the same joints on both sides of the body are affected.

If untreated, irreversible joint damage and deformity can occur, with other complications. Early diagnosis can allow preventive treatment to begin as soon as possible.

Diagnosis is made through physical examination; blood tests; and x-ray, CT scan, or MRI.

There is no cure for rheumatoid arthritis, but the disease can be managed to improve quality of life. Treatment includes nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs; steroids; anti-rheumatic drugs; physical therapy; and sometimes surgery to repair the joints.

Normal thumb pain

Thumb pain can be caused by a host of things, but is often idiopathic (without cause).

Your thumb pain looks like it is variation of normal, which doesn't require any treatment, for now. You can take over the counter pain medication to relieve the pain. If anything changes, please check in again.

Jammed thumb

Jammed thumbs are common in sports but may occur during daily activity.

You should visit a physician or urgent care center in the next day. Generally, surgery is not required and splinting is sufficient.

Rarity: Uncommon

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

De quervain's tenosynovitis

De Quervain's tenosynovitis is a painful condition affecting the tendons on the thumb side of the wrist. If you have de Quervain's tenosynovitis, you will feel pain upon turning your wrist, grasping anything, or making a fist.

You should visit your primary care physician to confirm the diagnosis and discuss treatment options. You can also reduce pain and swelling with over-the-counter pain relievers, such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), naproxen (Aleve).

Rarity: Uncommon

Top Symptoms: hand numbness, thumb pain, hand weakness, weakness in one hand, numbness in one hand

Symptoms that always occur with de quervain's tenosynovitis: thumb pain

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Carpal tunnel syndrome

Carpal tunnel syndrome causes numbness and pain in the underside of the wrist and hand. It is caused by narrowing of the carpal tunnel passageway, which puts pressure on the nerve running through it.

Narrowing and deformity of the tunnel is most often from overuse, especially highly repetitive activities such as typing or working on an assembly line. Wrist fracture or arthritis can damage the carpal tunnel, and so can diabetes and obesity.

Symptoms include numbness and shocklike pain in the wrist, palm, and fingers. There may be weakness in the hand when trying to hold an object.

Carpal tunnel syndrome virtually always gets worse over time. Permanent damage may result, so it is important to be seen by a medical provider.

Diagnosis is made through patient history and physical examination. X-rays or electromyography testing may be used.

Rest and cold packs to the wrist will reduce swelling. Wrist splints and ergonomically correct keyboards and other devices during work are often helpful.

Corticosteroid injections and surgery may also be tried.

Thumb pain treatments and relief

When to see a doctor for thumb pain

Experiencing any of these listed symptoms warrants a trip to your doctor sooner than later.

  • You have an open wound that won't stop bleeding
  • There are visual signs of an infection
  • The pain continues to worsen with time
  • You can't move your thumb at all or it becomes numb

At-home treatments for thumb pain

If you don't believe a trip to the doctor is necessary, there are ways to alleviate your thumb pain symptoms at home.

  • Over-the-counter medications: To relieve swelling and thumb pain, over the counter pain medications can be used as directed. However, if you find yourself still needing the medication after the recommended time window, make an appointment with your doctor.
  • Rest: Avoid using your thumb as much as possible. Use a splint if necessary.
  • Essential oils: For arthritis related discomfort, many find relief with essential oils.
  • Physical therapy: You can either practice your own physical therapy routine at home or seek professional assistance. Just make sure you have the approval of your doctor before starting a routine. Focus on a mixture of dexterity, strengthening, and range of motion exercises.

Thumb pain quiz

Take a quiz to find out what's causing your pain.

Take thumb pain quiz

FAQs about thumb pain

Why does my thumb hurt from texting?

Texting can cause many types of pain. Pain at the ball of the thumb may be caused by repeated contact with buttons, especially if the buttons are small and require more force. Pain at the base of the thumb may be caused by inflammation of the tendon of the thumb from repeated use and stretching of the tendon. Long periods of use can also lead to cramps. These injuries all fit into the class of repetitive stress injuries.

How long does it take to recover from a sprained thumb?

This depends on what you do to help your thumb heal. A physician may recommend putting your thumb in a cast, splint, or bandage until it heals. It may take up to six weeks to heal. It is advisable to keep the splint on for the first three weeks and to perform strengthening exercises while alternating with the splint on. Follow your physician's advice if it differs.

What is trigger thumb?

Trigger thumb is a disorder where the connective tissue that encloses the tendon that allows the thumb to flex becomes thicker. This causes the thumb to occasionally stick in the flexed position in such a way that it must be unflexed using the opposing hand. While no cause has been firmly identified, it is associated with repetitive motion over time.

Can repetitive strain injury be avoided?

Yes, repetitive strain or stress injuries can be avoided. It either takes training in techniques such that stress will not lead to damaged joints or tendons, or a well-designed device that will not direct stress at portions of the body not designed to support said stress. Currently, the market for ergonomic devices designs items that help prevent repetitive stress injuries.

Why does my thumb hurt when I'm gripping?

Thumb pain while gripping can be caused by multiple injuries. The most common cause of thumb pain upon gripping is a simple thumb sprain. It involves overstretching or even partially tearing a thumb ligament. This pain manifests in stronger grips and may cause sharp pain when gripping.

Questions your doctor may ask about thumb pain

  • Let's examine your thumb a bit. What makes your thumb hurt worse?
  • Do you repetitively use your thumb and wrist?
  • Does this hand movement cause you pain? (This is known as Finkelstein test.)
  • Are you currently raising a baby or young child?

Self-diagnose with our free Buoy Assistant if you answer yes on any of these questions.

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Dr. Rothschild has been a faculty member at Brigham and Women’s Hospital where he is an Associate Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School. He currently practices as a hospitalist at Newton Wellesley Hospital. In 1978, Dr. Rothschild received his MD at the Medical College of Wisconsin and trained in internal medicine followed by a fellowship in critical care medicine. He also received an MP...
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References

  1. Thumb Arthritis. American Society for Surgery of the Hand. ASSH Link
  2. Dickson DR, Dickson CCL, Farnell R. Pain at the Base of the Thumb. The BMJ. 2015;350:h182. The BMJ Link
  3. Infectious Arthritis. Arthritis Foundation. Arthritis Foundation Link
  4. Page C. Basal Joint Arthritis: How Therapy Can Help Thumb Pain. HSS. Updated November 4, 2009. HSS Link
  5. Leversedge FJ, Rohde R. Trigger Finger. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons: OrthoInfo. Updated March 2018. OrthoInfo Link
  6. Tips to Prevent RSI. NHS. Updated July 22, 2016. NHS Link