Do you repeatedly hear yourself say “my thumb hurts” because of the pain you feel at the base of your thumb (down by the wrist) when you pinch or grasp something? If so, you may have CMC joint arthritis, also known as thumb arthritis. Thumb arthritis is the most common place for arthritis in the hand and if you are a woman over the age of 40 (and willing to admit it), you stand a higher than average chance of developing it.
The good news is – there are things you can do to help ease your pain and lessen the progression of your arthritis. (There are other health conditions that may also cause pain around the base of the thumb, so it’s important to discuss your problem with your health care provider.)
Stages of Arthritis
Like any other type of arthritis, CMC joint arthritis or thumb arthritis can be mild or severe and can get in the way of your daily activities.
Thumb arthritis can be broken down into three stages.
In the beginning, you may feel a “grabbing” or sharp pain only when you start doing an activity- such as writing or pressing down hard on a pen or a remote control button. You may find you don’t feel as much pain once the activity gets underway- only for the pain to return when you stop doing it. This occasional pain is easy to ignore – but it isn’t advisable.
As your arthritis progresses, you may feel pain even when you are doing light activities or simply relaxing. You may also experience pain and tenderness when you touch the area around the joint of your thumb. At this point, you may also notice the base of your thumb “sticking out” and looking as though it is a little ledge or step. Now if there were any doubt before that you have CMC arthritis, your thumb is definitely telling you otherwise.
In later stages, your thumb may look “crooked”. When the middle knuckle of your thumb is bent, and the end joint is hyperextended, it could be what is called a Boutonniere Deformity.
Another “crooked” position is called a Swan Neck deformity. Your middle knuckle is hyperextended and it may be difficult to move your thumb sideways. With time, the skin in the “web” of your hand can shrink, making it impossible to open your thumb away from your palm.
In late stages of thumb arthritis, your may actually feel less pain, but the strange position of your thumb makes it harder to use and you may lose strength in it.
Is there anything I can so I don’t end up with Stage 2 or Stage 3 arthritis?
It would be really nice to be able to say – if you take this pill, wear this splint, or do this exercise, your arthritis will not progress or it may even go away. Unfortunately for those with a family history of arthritis or those who just did not win the toss of the coin for long lived, healthy bones- the disease may progress despite the best care.
What you can do however, is learn to use your hands so they are less stressed, use tools/gadgets that help you with your daily movements with less stress, and wear splints or braces that support your thumb joints.
Even at the very early stages of CMC arthritis, wearing a support that applies light compression and support, can really help relieve pain and allow for better movement.
I can’t wear a hard splint and still do my work. Are there other options?
There are lighter weight, foam lined splints that provide cushioning, support and light compression with only slight restriction in motion- such as the 3pp ThumSling.
What if I need more support?
The important thing to know is that you do have options that can help with your pain and reduce stress so you have fewer problems later in life.