Thumb Pain: Causes, Treatment and Prevention

The thumb is a very important part of the hand, it enables us to pick things, write, and use our phones easily. However, because of how versatile our thumbs are, they are prone to some injuries when overworked.

In this article, we will be discussing the different possible causes of thumb pain, its treatment and how it can be prevented.

What Causes Thumb Pain?

Here are some conditions that can lead to a painful thumb.

1. De Quervain Tenosynovitis

This is an inflammation of tendons at the thumb side of the wrist, causing pain at the base of the thumb. It is usually associated with repetitive thumb or wrist movement like when playing video games, texting or playing golf.

This makes tendons rub against each other, leading to irritation and swelling of the surrounding tissue.

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2. Fracture

A fracture is a broken bone. There are two bones in each thumb, if any of them gets broken by a fall or direct trauma, it can lead to severe thumb pain. Other symptoms associated with a fractured thumb are swelling, deformity, and a loss of function.

3. Thumb Sprain

Thumb pain

The thumb has some ligaments around it, an injury to these ligaments can cause thumb joint pain. A sprain can be caused by an extreme bend of the thumb or during sporting activities like skiing.

In this condition, there may be some pain when trying to write, hold things or attempting to open a door.

4. Arthritis

At every joint, there are cartilages that cover the surfaces of the bones within, allowing them to be mobile without brushing against each other. With age, the cartilages in the thumb can begin to wear off leading to arthritis. This can cause pain at the thumb joint, stiffness, swelling, and a decreased range of motion.

5. Carpal Tunnel Syndrome

Carpal tunnel syndrome is one of the most common conditions that can cause pain in the hands. It is caused by increased pressure on the median nerve- a nerve that supplies the thumb, index finger, middle finger, and half of the ring finger. This can cause pain, numbness, weakness or a tingling sensation.

Treatment

It’s best to see a doctor if you feel you’ve broken a bone in your thumb or have persistent thumb pain.

Some tests may be requested in the course of your management. These may include:

  • X-Rays
  • Tinsel’s Test (for carpal tunnel syndrome)
  • Electromyography
  • MRI

Treatment is generally targeted at the underlying cause. Here are some treatment modalities for caring for thumb pain:

1. PRICE

The PRICE acronym is a popular method used in caring for injuries during the first 72 hours of onset.

The acronym stands for:

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Protect– Protect the thumb from further injury

Rest– Rest the thumb by avoiding some activities for a while. You can also wear a thumb splint with wrist support or taping.

Ice– Ice helps to relieve pain and reduce swelling

Compression– Use a compression bandage to reduce swelling

Elevation– Positioning the thumb above chest level to reduce swelling

2. Medications

Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like Ibuprofen and Naproxen are prescribed to reduce the swelling and relieve pain.

3. Physical Therapy

Physical therapy plays a major role in the healing process of many thumb conditions. It helps to improve functionality, range of motion, and to lower pain.

Depending on what the underlying cause is, your doctor may send you to the physical therapist who will then carry out an assessment of the condition and can help pick out an appropriate recovery plan.

Here are some treatment options with physical therapy:

  1. Thermal modalities like ice or infrared may be used to relieve pain and increase range of motion.
  2. A nerve stimulator may be used to relieve numbness and tingling sensation caused by compression of the median nerve.
  3. Exercises can be recommended to strengthen weak muscles.
  4. Deep tissue massage can be done to relieve the pain and speed up the healing process.

Surgical Management

For some cases like a fracture or carpal tunnel syndrome, your doctor may suggest surgery. This is to ensure a precise and quick recovery. It can be to openly align and fix the broken bone edges or to release a band of tissue that’s compressing a nerve.

Prevention

  • Try to involve your other fingers when typing on your phone. Extreme reliance on just your thumb can lead to some of the aforementioned conditions.
  • Exercise and stretch your hands from time to time
  • Position your arms properly when writing or typing. The wrist and forearm should be well supported to avoid tension at the fingers especially the thumbs.
  • Report early to your doctor if you feel any discomfort in your hands.

Summary

The thumb is one of the most mobile parts of the body. Because of its mobility, there is a tendency for us to use it more and make it more prone to injury. If you have thumb pain, you can try to use the PRICE principle and discuss your symptoms with your doctor. Remember to follow your doctor’s recommendations.

References:

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Adekanmi Lipede, M.Sc, MPH

Adekanmi Lipede is a licensed physiotherapist with a Master's degree in physical activity and public health from Loughborough University. She joined 25 Doctors in 2018 and is passionate about educating people about the best steps to take when trying to be physically fit or when recovering from a mobility-related condition. For fun, she loves to exercise and read.
Adekanmi Lipede, M.Sc, MPH
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