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Arthritis, Infections & Broken Thumbs: Top Thumb Pain Causes

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Last updated August 31, 2020

Thumb pain questionnaire

Use our free symptom checker 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 questionnaire

Use our free symptom checker to find out what's causing your pain.

Thumb pain symptom checker

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.

Thumb pain questionnaire

Use our free symptom checker to find out what's causing your pain.

Thumb pain symptom checker

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.

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.

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

Thumb arthritis

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.

Symptoms include...

Sprained thumb

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.

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.

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

Rheumatoid arthritis

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..

Jammed thumb

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

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

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 questionnaire

Use our free symptom checker to find out what's causing your pain.

Thumb pain symptom checker

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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