Thumb Pain: Causes, Treatment and Prevention

The thumb is one of the best things known to man. It enables us do so many things like picking things, writing, playing with our phones to mention a few. However, because of how versatile our thumbs are, we tend to overwork them or do more with them than they are meant to.

In this article, we will be looking at thumb pain, what causes it, and how it can be treated and prevented.

What Do We Need To Know About The Thumb?

Thumb pain

The thumb is the first digit of the hand. unlike the other fingers that are made up of three bones, the thumb is made up of two bones.

The thumb has a wider range of movement compared to the other fingers. Because of this wide range of movement, the thumb is usually used for so many things like pinching, grabbing, gripping and grasping.

The thumb is made up of three joints:

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The carpometacarpal joint

This is the last joint of the thumb. It joins the thumb to the wrist. This is also the most mobile joint in the thumb. Sometimes, injuries to the wrist may lead to pain in the thumb because of the close relationship between the thumb and the wrist.

Metacarpophalangeal joint

This is the middle joint in the thumb.

Interphalangeal joint

This is the topmost joint in the thumb.

The joints are formed by ligaments joining the bones to each other. The muscles in the forearm have their tendons that join them to the bones of the thumb. The tendons pass through a tunnel located at the thumb side of the wrist.

The thumb can move in different directions:

  • It can touch all the fingers
  • It can move away from the palm
  • It can move close to the palm
  • It can touch the aspect of the palm below the little finger

Thumb pain is a type of pain that affects the anatomical structure (tendons, muscles, ligaments, and bone) from the base of the thumb at the wrist to the tip of the thumb.

What Causes Thumb Pain?

Thumb positioning

1. De Quervain Tenosynovitis

This is an overuse condition which leads to swelling of the tendons at the thumb side of the wrist and pain in the thumb. This is usually caused by repetitive movement at the wrist or thumb such as always texting on your phone or typing or cooking all the time.

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Due to overuse, the tendons rub against themselves which causes irritation and swelling of the tendons at the base of the thumb by the wrist joint and reduce movement at the thumb and then cause pain in the thumb.

2. Fracture

Fracture is a break in the bone. A break in the bones of the thumb can be caused by a fall on the hand.

A fractured bone will definitely cause pain and swelling around the thumb.

3. Thumb Sprain

The thumb has some ligaments around them. however, injury to these ligaments can cause thumb pain. This injury can be caused by a hyperextension of the thumb or during a sporting activity like catching a ball.

4. Arthritis

At every joint, there are cartilages that allow for easy movement on the bones of themselves. As we grow older, the cartilages begin to wear off and this leads to arthritis of the thumb joint. The joint that is usually affected is the carpometacarpal joint.

5. Carpal Tunnel Syndrome

The carpal tunnel is found at the wrist. The median nerve goes through the carpal tunnel to the fingers.

The median nerve can get compressed at the carpal tunnel by swollen tendons or fracture or sprains. This compression leads to a condition called carpal tunnel syndrome. One of the signs of this condition is thumb pain.

Associated Symptoms

Pain is the major symptom when it comes to the thumb but other symptoms can be related to the pain. These other signs can also help differentiate the different causes of thumb pain.

  1. Tenderness
  2. Swelling
  3. Reduced movement at the thumb
  4. Numbness which is usually associated with carpal tunnel syndrome
  5. Deformed thumb which can happen if there is a fracture
  6. Joint stiffness

How Is It Treated?

As always, it is adviced that you discuss all health challenges you have with your doctor. However, these are some strategies used to care for thumb pain.

1. PRICE

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

The acronym stands for:

Protect– Protect the thumb from further injury

Rest– Rest the thumb by avoiding some activities for a while by wearing a thumb splint with a wrist support or taping.

Ice– to relieve pain and reduce swelling

Compression– using a compression bandage to reduce swelling

Elevation– positioning the thumb above chest level to reduce swelling

2. Medications

Non – steroidal anti inflammatory medications are prescribed to reduce the swelling and relieve pain.

3. Physiotherapy

Physiotherapy plays a major role in the healing process of the cause of the thumb pain. A physiotherapist can treat all the presenting symptoms of thumb pain conditions.

The physiotherapist will carry out an assessment starting with when the injury or pain started and can help pick out what could be causing the thumb pain.

Orthopaedic tests will be carried out by the physiotherapist to locate the pain and the anatomical structures that may be injured. After the assessment is done, the physiotherapist will draw up goals with you using a timeframe to ensure effective recovery.

Some of the treatment plans may be:

  1. Thermal modalities like ice or infrared may be used to relieve pain which in turn may increase the movement at the thumb.
  2. Nerve stimulator may be used to relieve numbness and tingling sensation caused by compression of the median nerve.
  3. Exercises are recommended to strengthen weak muscles that arise due to not moving the thumb effectively due to pain or limitations like fracture for example.
  4. If there are any deformities, physiotherapy can help correct them.
  5. Deep tissue massage can be done to not only relieve pain to speed up the healing process and relieve any tension or compression that may be causing the thumb pain.

Exercises

Finkelstein Stretch

  • Place your hand out in front of you with your thumb pointing towards the ceiling
  • Place your thumb on your palm and form a fist around the thumb
  • Tilt your hand towards the ground
  • You will feel a stretch at the thumb side of your wrist
  • Hold for 15 seconds
  • Repeat 3 – 5 times

Grip Strengthening

We cannot grip without our thumbs. So when there is pain in the thumb, there is difficulty gripping due to pain. To strengthen your grip,

  • Hold on to a soft ball or a rolled up towel
  • Squeeze the object of your choice with your painful hand
  • Hold for 10 – 15 seconds
  • Release and repeat 5 times

Pinch Strengthening

Pinching without a thumb is impossible. To strengthen the muscles that help us pinch or pick

  • Pinch a soft ball or a rolled up towel
  • Hold for 15 seconds
  • Release and repeat 10 times

Thumb Extension

  • Place a rubber band round your fingers with your palm on a table
  • Take your thumb away from the rest of your fingers
  • The rubber band will act as a resistance
  • Return to normal position and repeat 5 – 10 times

Thumb Flexion

  • Open your palm wide
  • Let your palm face you
  • Take your thumb towards the base of your little finger
  • Return to starting position
  • Repeat 5 – 10 times
  • Thumb To Finger Touch

Rubber Band Stretches

  • Put your fingers together
  • Place a rubber band round the fingers
  • Open out your fingers
  • Hold for 10 seconds
  • Relax and repeat 5 times

Surgery

Surgery is a last option depending on the severity of the cause of the thumb pain.

How Can I Prevent Thumb Pain?

Rest the wrist

  • Reduce your typing on your phones with your thumb. Try using your other fingers to type on your phones.
  • Take stretch breaks especially wrist stretches to prevent swollen tendons or tight muscles
  • Exercise your hands with the exercises suggested above.
  • Position your arms properly when writing or typing. The wrist and forearm should be well supported to avoid tension on the fingers especially the thumbs.
  • If you feel discomfort or pain, ice the area of pain immediately before proceeding to exercises.

In Conclusion

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 pushing it beyond its limit. Pushing it beyond its limit puts a lot of strain on the joint and because of its close proximity to the wrist, the wrist can also contribute to pain at the thumb.

Sometimes, doing less movement is more when it comes to avoiding thumb pain.

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Adekanmi Lipede, MPH

Adekanmi Lipede is a licensed physiotherapist with a Master's degree in physical activity and public health. She loves to exercise and read.
Adekanmi Lipede, MPH
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