What to Know About Thumb Arthritis

Medically Reviewed by David Zelman, MD on June 30, 2023
3 min read

The type of joint in your thumb is called a saddle joint. This can make your thumb more likely to develop arthritis as you age. It’s common to develop thumb arthritis over time because as your cartilage wears away, it stops protecting your bones from rubbing against each other. This can be painful to live with. 

Your thumb is a saddle joint, which means one bone sits in the other bone like a saddle. This is different from the ball and socket joint you have in your knee or elbow. This saddle joint is what gives you opposable thumbs. It also affects the way that your thumbs move, which is different from your ball and socket joints. 

This type of joint can wear down faster, which makes your thumbs more likely to develop osteoarthritis. 

Thumb arthritis is the breakdown of cartilage in the saddle joint of your thumb. Arthritis irritates your joints. 

Osteoarthritis, also known as “wear-and-tear” arthritis, is degenerative arthritis.

Degenerative arthritis means that your cartilage wears down as you age. This type of arthritis in your thumb is the second most common type of arthritis in your hand and the most common kind of thumb arthritis. Other conditions like Lupus or Rheumatoid arthritis can also cause your joints to break down. 

If your saddle joint doesn’t let your thumb pivot, swivel, or grip things anymore, you might be developing arthritis. Previous injuries or fractures to your thumb can also cause arthritis to develop. 

You may begin to notice that your thumb doesn’t have the same range of motion it used to. As your ligaments start to wear down, the saddle joint loosens. This can cause it to fall out of place. As your cartilage wears away, you lose the cushion for your bones. This can cause a lot of pain and damage to your thumb joint. You may stop using your thumb the same way you used to without realizing it. This could be an effort to help relieve some of the pain. 

As thumb arthritis progresses, you may have trouble with tasks like opening doors or jars.

Other symptoms include: 

  • Swelling, stiffness, and tenderness at the base of your thumb
  • Decreased strength when pinching or gripping objects
  • An enlarged or bony appearance of the joint at your thumb base

Women over 50 years old are 10 to 20 times more likely to have thumb arthritis than men. There’s no exact reason for this. However, there are steps you can take to preserve your thumb cartilage. 

When you notice the symptoms of thumb arthritis, you should contact your doctor. They’ll help you diagnose the problem by asking you about your pain, prior injuries, or what makes your thumb pain flare up. 

In some cases, you may need an X-ray to identify the level of joint breakdown or to see if you have any bone spurs.

A bone spur is a bony projection that forms along the edge of your bone.

Once you’ve been diagnosed with thumb arthritis, your doctor may suggest non-surgical treatment. This is most likely for cases of early-stage arthritis. These management techniques include: 

  • Icing your joint for 5 to 15 minutes several times each day
  • Anti-inflammatory medication, like aspirin or ibuprofen
  • A supportive splint to reduce thumb movement
  • A steroid injection depending on how far along your arthritis has developed

If your thumb arthritis progresses into a worse condition and the management plans aren’t working, you might need surgery. There are different options that your doctor may suggest. You can talk to your doctor about which is right for you. 

Bone fusion. Your doctor may suggest fusing the bones of your joint together. This will greatly reduce how much you can move your thumb. 

Partial joint removal. You may have to get part of your joint removed and have it rebuilt. Your doctor will do this by using a part of your tendon or an artificial option. 

You'll want to take note of your range of movement and pain level. This will help your doctor decide the next steps in your arthritis management plan. 

Thumb arthritis will wear down your joints more as you age. If caught early, however, you can start management plans quickly to hopefully reduce the amount of pain and limited thumb movement you experience later.