A painful thumb is not uncommon and can begin at any age. It is more common in women than men and usually starts at the base of the thumb. It can begin suddenly from trauma, such as walking the dog and getting the leash wrapped around your thumb. It can begin gradually from overuse, such as squeezing tools too hard or too long, or squeezing a pen or pencil too hard or too long. Now we can add text messaging to the mix, because so many use their thumbs for texting a lot. Overuse is a more common cause of thumb pain than trauma. Overuse can occur as a result of using the
thumb for the same activity over a long period of time, like texting. It can occur from doing these things
repetitively over a period of years.
Some people have loose ligaments and over time the joints become unstable and can actually collapse.
People can develop arthritis when their joints are unstable and the pain from this can worsen in cold
weather and with a lot of hand use. Fifty percent of the use of the hand depends on a healthy thumb.
Your web space is the area between the thumb and index finger. It is important that it remains wide so
you can get your thumb out of the palm for grasping. With arthritis the muscle that pulls the thumb into
the palm can get tight. Over time this causes loss of function and a deformity. It is also important to
keep the web space stretched out to be able to grasp larger objects. You can do this by massaging the
muscles in the web space and then the stretching the thumb away from the index finger with the other
hand. Hold for 10 seconds, repeat 5X. When you join the tips of your thumb and index finger you want
to form a big “O” not a “D”.
With arthritis, cartilage, the cushion on the ends of the bones, is lost. Without the cushion you have
“bone against bone”, which hurts. One thing you can do to relieve the pain of an arthritic thumb is to
decompress the joint by gently pulling the bones apart. You can do this by joining the webspaces and
allowing one hand to grasp the opposite thumb. Gently pull to “distract” the joint and it will make it feel
better. Hold the stretch for 10 seconds and repeat 5X, several times a day.
One should see a hand therapist if they are experiencing thumb pain for an evaluation. A hand therapist
can determine if the muscles of the thumb are weak and need to be strengthened, if the joints are losing
flexibility and need to be stretched, or if the joints are collapsing and may need to be splinted. Hand
therapists can also recommend safer ways of using your thumbs to preserve hand function.
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