Read below about swollen thumb, including causes, treatment options and remedies. Or get a personalized analysis of your swollen thumb from our A.I. health assistant. At Buoy, we build tools that help you know what’s wrong right now and how to get the right care.

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Swollen Thumb Symptoms

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. [9]

Symptoms that can be associated with a swollen thumb include:

  • Pain [2]
  • Redness [2]
  • Drainage of pus [2]
  • Small blisters [2]
  • Stiffness or weakness of the thumb [2,3]
  • Swelling of a thumb joint or at the tip of the thumb [1,2]

Swollen Thumb Causes Overview

Infectious causes:

  • 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. [1]
  • 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. [2]

Injury-related causes:

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. [3]
  • Bone fracture: One of the thumb bones can be broken during a fall or through trauma from an athletic event. [4]
  • 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. [5]

Chronic joint disorders:

  • Arthritis: Multiple types of arthritis can cause swelling of the thumb joints, resulting in swelling, pain, and stiffness. [6]
  • 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. [7]

Tumors:

  • 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. [8]
  • 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. [8]

A.I. Health Assistant Causes for Swollen Thumb

The list below shows results from the use of our A.I. Health Assistant by Buoy users who experienced swollen thumb. This list does not constitute medical advice.

  1. 1.Cellulitis

    Facial cellulitis is a skin infection that typically comes from other parts of the face like the mouth or the sinuses and needs antibiotic treatment. Symptoms can be pain, redness, warmth and swelling of the affected area.

    Dependent on severity of infection

    Rarity:
    Uncommon
    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
  2. 2.Rheumatoid Arthritis

    Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a form of arthritis that causes pain, swelling, stiffness and loss of function in your joints. It can affect any joint but is common in the wrist and fingers. RA is an autoimmune disorder, meaning that it is caused by the immune system incorrectly attacking the joints when it shouldn't.

    RA is a chronic disease which requires lifelong control.

    Rarity:
    Rare
    Top Symptoms:
    fatigue, depressed mood, joint pain, muscle aches, daytime sleepiness
    Urgency:
    Primary care doctor
  3. 3.Dupuytren Disease

    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.

    This condition is chronic, and may get worse over time, eventually requiring treatment.

    Rarity:
    Uncommon
    Top Symptoms:
    finger joint stiffness, hand bump, thickened skin on the finger, swollen hands, hand injury
    Urgency:
    Primary care doctor
  4. 4.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.

    Will likely resolve with no treatment within weeks.

    Rarity:
    Rare
    Top Symptoms:
    injury from a common fall, recent injury from bracing a fall with the hands, constant hand pain
    Symptoms that always occur with sprained thumb:
    constant hand pain, thumb pain from an injury
    Urgency:
    Primary care doctor

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  5. 5.Jammed Thumb

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

    2-3 weeks

    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
  6. 6.Psoriatic Arthritis

    Psoriasis is a skin disease that causes itchy or sore patches of thick, red skin with silvery scales. Some people who have psoriasis also get a form of arthritis (inflammation and swelling of joints) called psoriatic arthritis.

    This type of arthritis can be managed with treatment, and permanent damage can be prevented. However, the underlying cause (psoriasis) is currently incurable.

    Rarity:
    Rare
    Top Symptoms:
    shoulder pain, lower back pain, joint pain, upper back pain, hip pain
    Urgency:
    Primary care doctor
  7. 7.Non - Serious Finger Injury

    Finger injuries are very common & rarely need medical treatment.

    The pain & swelling will begin to resolve within a few days.

    Rarity:
    Common
    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
    Urgency:
    Self-treatment
  8. 8.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.

    This condition is considered irreversible, but symptoms can be effectively managed with treatment

    Rarity:
    Rare
    Top Symptoms:
    difficulty moving the thumb, thumb pain that affects sleep, thumb pain from overuse, pain in the thumb side of the hand, spontaneous thumb pain
    Urgency:
    Primary care doctor

Swollen Thumb Treatments and Relief

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. [4]
  • 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. [1,2]

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. [9]
  • You have thumb swelling that is worsening or staying the same over time. [1,2,9]
  • You have previously been diagnosed with arthritis, gout, or cancer and have new thumb swelling. [6,7,8]
  • You have drainage from the thumb. [1,2]

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. [2]
  • Antiviral medication for a viral infection. [1]
  • Treatment for an underlying medical condition such as arthritis or gout. [6,7]
  • A splint to ensure normal healing after an injury. [9]
  • Referral for surgical management. [4]
  • Steroid injection for arthritis. [6]

Some home treatments may help with swollen thumb symptoms.

  • 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. [3]
  • Avoiding shellfish, red meat, and alcohol can help prevent attacks of gout. [7]
  • Ibuprofen or other NSAIDs can help with swelling and pain due to arthritis or an injury. [3,6]
  • Soaking the thumb in warm water can help with pain, swelling, and stiffness. [9]

FAQs About Swollen Thumb

Here are some frequently asked questions 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. [1,2]

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. [7]

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. [3,4,5]

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. [3,6,8]

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. [10]

Questions Your Doctor May Ask About Swollen Thumb

  • Q.Have you ever been diagnosed with diabetes?
  • Q.Have you ever been diagnosed with cancer?
  • Q.Do you have these contractures that limit the movement of your fingers? (See picture)
  • Q.Do any of your body parts (e.g., toes, hands, ears) feel cold?

If you've answered yes to one or more of these questions, try our swollen thumb symptom checker to find out more.

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Swollen Thumb Symptom Checker Statistics

  • People who have experienced swollen thumb have also experienced:

    • 47% Thumb Pain
    • 5% Moderate Thumb Pain
    • 5% Joint Stiffness
  • People who have experienced swollen thumb had symptoms persist for:

    • 37% Less Than a Day
    • 35% Less Than a Week
    • 13% Over a Month
  • People who have experienced swollen thumb were most often matched with:

    • 40% Cellulitis
    • 30% Rheumatoid Arthritis
    • 30% Dupuytren Disease
  • Source: Aggregated and anonymized results from visits to the Buoy AI health assistant (check it out by clicking on “Take Quiz”).

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References

  1. Page not found (https://www.health.harvard.edu/hands/felon)
  2. Hand Infections. Massachusetts General Hospital Orthopaedics. Mass General Link. Accessed October 4, 2018.
  3. Leversedge FJ, Jennings CD, Fischer SJ. Sprained Thumb. OrthoInfo. OrthoInfo Link. Reviewed June 2018. Accessed October 4, 2018.
  4. Closed Thumb Fracture. Fairview. Fairview Link. Accessed October 4, 2018.
  5. Thumb Dislocation. Fairview. Fairview Link. Accessed October 4, 2018.
  6. Arthritis of the Thumb. OrthoInfo. OrthoInfo Link. Pulished December 2013. Accessed October 4, 2018.
  7. Fields TR. Gout: Risk Factor, Diagnosis and Treatment. HSS. HSS Link. Updated December 18, 2017. Accessed October 4, 2018.
  8. Van Veenendaal LM, de Klerk G, van der Velde D. A Painful Finger as First Sign of a Malignancy. Geriatric Orthopaedic Surgery & Rehabilitation. 2014;5(1):18-20. Geriatr Orthop Surg Rehabil Link. Published March 2014. Accessed October 4, 2018.
  9. Top 5 ways to reduce crippling hand pain. Harvard Health Publishing: Harvard Medical School. Harvard Health Link. Published July 2013. Updated August 1, 2017.
  10. Psoriatic Arthritis Diagnosis. Arthritis Foundation. Arthritis Foundation Link. Accessed October 4, 2018.