Nearly 50% of all hand functions involve the thumbs. Thumb pain, therefore, affects the quality of life. If you wake up to a stiff thumb or aching pain, you won’t certainly feel great about it.

Different types of arthritis may affect the CMC joints and cause throbbing pain. Arthritis is a progressive joint disorder that has no cure. However, timely diagnosis may help alleviate the symptoms and help patients maintain their quality of life.

If you notice a traumatic thumb with swelling, stiffness, or redness with nagging pain, or a visual deformity, it is wise to consult a physician for diagnosis.

What Is Thumb Joint Pain?

Are you losing your grip frequently? Do you have difficulty moving your thumb? Do you notice thumb joint pain?

There are many reasons one can have thumb pain and stiffness. It could be a fracture or a strain. However, thumb joint pain could be a symptom of thumb arthritis. Arthritis is a progressive disease that affects and inflames joints in the body. How does arthritis affect the thumb joint? It involves cartilage degeneration from joints.

Cartilage, a slippery, firm, flexible connective tissue, covers the bone ends near the joints. It smoothens bone surfaces at the joints and creates a low-friction environment by creating a cushioning effect. With aging, cartilage health becomes poor and starts eroding from the bone ends.

When thumb arthritis strikes, cartilage slowly disappears from the carpometacarpal or CMC joint – the joint at the base of the thumb. As the cartilage degenerates, the cushioning effect is lost, and the bones come in direct contact, causing friction and aching pain.

Several types of arthritis can cause thumb arthritis, including gout, osteoarthritis, and rheumatoid arthritis. In the US, thumb arthritis is very common and may affect persons over 40.

Orthopedic surgeons say women are more likely to have thumb arthritis. Thumb joint pain can be debilitating and may impact the range of motion.

What You Should Know About CMC Joint Or Thumb Arthritis

Thumb Arthritis
The CMC joint is the junction where the base of the thumb is linked with the hand. A saddle joint, the CMC is involved in a wide range of motion.

Throughout our life, the CMC joint undergoes significant physical stresses. Thumb arthritis happens due to cartilage degeneration in the carpometacarpal (CMC) joint.

Osteoarthritis is a major reason of thumb arthritis. It ranks second as the common type of arthritis that affects the thumbs in the US.

Women in post-menopause have a higher risk of getting thumb arthritis. Osteoarthritis may strike if you have a history of thumb injuries or have a weak thumb structure, or your work routine puts great pressure on the thumb.

How Do I Know If I Have Thumb Arthritis?

Thumb arthritis is common in people over 40. However, different people have different symptoms. Life with thumb arthritis would be a blend of good and bad days. If you have an inflamed carpometacarpal (CMC) joint, you may feel a warm, painful sensation with tenderness. You may feel a nagging pain.

The joint may swell and make your hand or grip unstable and weak. People with thumb pain may find it difficult to open jars or cans. Simple activities, such as turning doorknobs, writing, or gripping a pen, may look like hard tasks. As the condition progresses, it may keep you awake at night, disrupting sleep.

Causes Of Thumb Joint Pain

Causes Of Thumb Joint Pain
Different forms of arthritis may affect the thumb joints and cause thumb joint pain.

1. Osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis is degenerative arthritis that affects the thumb joints (CMC). Many hand OA patients experience discomfort at the thumb carpometacarpal (CMC1) joint. As this study[1] indicates, aged women are prone to OA and thumb carpometacarpal (CMC1) osteoarthritis (OA). The thumb is an example of a saddle joint in which the bones are interlocked in a concave-convex manner. The bones at CMC joints lose their protective padding faster as the joint cartilage slowly wears away and osteoarthritis sneaks in. It affects how the thumb functions and limits its range of motion.

2. Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA)

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a chronic, inflammatory, and autoimmune disorder that causes irreversible damage to the joints. In RA, the body’s immune system considers its healthy cells its enemy and attacks them. RA attacks many joints in the body, including hands, wrists, and knees. If your thumb joint is affected by rheumatoid arthritis, you will most likely experience joint stiffness in the morning. In RA, the linings of the joint tissues become tender and sensitive and cause a burning sensation. By damaging the joint tissues, RA causes chronic joint pain, joint deformity, and joint instability.

3. Gout

Your thumb pain could be a sign of gout. A gout is a form of arthritis that may affect any joint in the body. The body develops gout when it has high levels of uric acid. When the kidneys fail to eliminate the excess of uric acid from the body, it crystallizes and accumulates around the joints causing pain, redness, and swelling. When the uric acid crystals accumulate around the thumb joints, thumb joint pain occurs.

4. Psoriatic Arthritis

Psoriatic arthritis causes painful joint inflammation, stiffness, and swelling. It causes pain where the tendon or ligament is connected to the joints and affects the mobility of the organ.

3 Warning Signs Of Thumb Joint Pain You Should Not Ignore

Arthritis may cause throbbing and intense thumb joint pain, swelling, redness, and stiffness. While arthritis symptoms are not completely curable, non-surgical treatment options are available.

Different types of arthritis may be the thumb joint pain causes, so an accurate diagnosis is the first step you need to take to prevent severity. The warning signs include:

Signs Of Thumb Joint Pain

  • Joint pain – All forms of arthritis cause mild to intense joint pain. If you notice thumb joint pain after a period of inactivity or in the morning, you need to talk to a physician about it. Joint pain in arthritis could be episodic, especially in the case of rheumatic arthritis.
  • Joint Stiffness – One of the most common warning signs of arthritis is joint stiffness. Patients with thumb osteoarthritis may notice morning stiffness after waking up. Stiffness also occurs after a long period of inactivity. Gout and RA patients also experience joint stiffness.
  • Joint Tenderness – Patients with thumb joint pain also find tenderness in joints. All common types of arthritis – osteoarthritis, RA, gout – are characterized by joint tenderness. RA inflames and damages the joint tissues that cause tenderness. Gout patients may develop hard bumps that become tender during a gout flare.

Apart from these warning signs, you may experience excessive fatigue, fever, non-tender skin nodules, and skin redness that indicate the possibility of arthritis.

What Are Thumb Joint Pain Symptoms?

Arthritis is often the major reason for thumb joint pain. Different types of arthritis may cause thumb pain. Most often, it is osteoarthritis people suffer from. However, gout and rheumatoid arthritis can affect the thumb joints. The following could be the symptoms:

  • Gout symptomsGout is inflammatory arthritis and causes stiffness, severe pain, and swelling in the affected joints. Gout can affect any joint in the body, including the thumb. If you find the base of the thumb aching or stiff, it could be a gout flare paining you. A gout-inflamed thumb may prevent you from grasping a coffee mug or turning the doorknob. If your thumb joint has gout, you may feel a sudden sharp pain that lasts for a week or two and then lessens, the thumb joint swells and turns red, and the thumb becomes normal when the pain and swelling subside.
  • Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) symptoms – Like gout, RA may affect your joints badly, including the thumb joints. Statistics show that women are the worst sufferers. Typically, RA attacks the joints insidiously and progresses gradually as the signs and symptoms become severe and intense. Morning stiffness is one of the most common symptoms of RA. If your thumb hurts after you wake up, RA could be the reason. Additionally, rheumatoid arthritis may cause throbbing, aching pain, redness, swelling, and warmth.
  • Osteoarthritis (OA)symptoms – The base of the thumb is often affected by osteoarthritis. When affected with osteoarthritis, the thumb joint may be stiff and swollen. Some may develop bumps. If the affected joint develops a cyst, the finger may bend or deform. Bumps can be painful and limit activities such as opening the door, writing, turning keys, etc.
  • Psoriatic Arthritis symptomsPsoriatic arthritis may affect the joints in the hands and fingers. A typical symptom of PsA is swelling that results in pain and stiffness. Like other arthritis variants, PsA too affects the activities of daily life.
  • Lupus Arthritis symptoms – Lupus is another form of arthritis that affects large and small joints. Like RA, lupus is an autoimmune disease. The symptoms are somewhat similar. When lupus affects the small joints in the fingers, the pain travels from joint to joint. Physical, blood, and imaging tests may tell if you have lupus.

Treating Thumb Joint Pain: Non-Surgical And Surgical Options

Treating Thumb Joint Pain
Thumb arthritis is the second common hand arthritis disorder Americans experience. Arthritis has no definite cure, and different forms of arthritis can be the thumb joint pain causes.

If you are diagnosed with thumb arthritis, your physician will create a pain management strategy depending on the severity. Typically, persons affected with thumb arthritis don’t require surgery. Some of the thumb pain treatment plans are explained below.

Osteoarthritis may affect the thumb badly, limiting its functions. If you struggle with turning the doorknob or buttoning your shirt, or plain writing, it’s time to consult a physician. Most patients don’t require surgery.

I. Non-surgical thumb pain treatment options include:

  • Exercise – Exercise is a proven way to improve joint health. Exercise may help reduce joint stiffness and improve range of motion. Thumb stretches are especially useful for improving the affected joint’s strength. You may consult a therapist for easy and effective stretches.
  • OTC medications – Acetaminophen and NSAIDs such as ibuprofen and naproxen are often prescribed to reduce thumb joint pain. However, some NSAIDs can cause side effects. It is wise to stick to a doctor’s recommended dose.
  • Prescription medications – Medications formulated with COX-2 inhibitors or corticosteroid injections may offer temporary relief from swelling and thumb pain.
  • Splints – Wearing a splint may help decrease pain and hold the thumb in place.

    If your thumb is affected by rheumatoid arthritis, you may consider a combination of available non-surgical thumb pain treatment plans to improve your condition.

  • Apply a cold or warm compress – Arthritic stiffness can be reduced with a warm and cold compress. A cold compress may give relief from inflammatory symptoms. A warm compress can heat the synovial fluid and ease joint stiffness.
  • Cold or warm compress

  • Take periodic breaks – Take periodic breaks to rest joints, tendons, and ligaments.
  • Occupational therapy – Occupational therapy is an effective method of improving agility. It also prevents joint deformity.
  • Topical pain relievers – A wide variety of topical pain relievers are available on the market. Take your pick from patches, balms, gels, or creams. However, some topical medications may interact with oral medications or injections you take. So, consult your physician before using one.
  • Splints / Compression gloves – Rheumatoid arthritis may cause joint deformity or joint malalignment. Wearing splints and tight-fitting compression gloves may improve stiffness, prevent deformities, and relieve pain.

  • Thumb Gout Treatments: As higher levels of uric acid causes gout, medications are prescribed to keep the uric acid levels in check. Inflammation-fighting medications, including NSAIDs, are often given. Having a low-purine diet[2] also helps prevent gout flare-ups. Allopurinol is a common and frequently used medicine to lower uric acid.

II. Surgical options:

If non-surgical thumb pain treatment options fail to offer the desired outcome, surgeries are the last resort. The doctor may suggest osteotomy or trapeziectomy to the patients. Doctors also suggest joint fusion or joint replacements.

Frequently Asked Questions About Thumb Joint Pain

Potential thumb joint pain causes include thumb arthritis, thumb sprain, a fracture, and De Quervain's tenosynovitis. Thumb arthritis is prevalent in the aging population, and women are more susceptible.

Diagnosis is the first step you need to stop thumb joint pain. It is crucial to know whether you have a fracture or sprain or a type of thumb arthritis. In cases concerning thumb arthritis, both non-surgical and surgical options are available.

The thumb joint may be affected by a form of arthritis. When it gets affected by osteoarthritis, the cartilage degenerates, and the bones in the thumb joints rub together and cause thumb pain and stiffness. In RA, the joint tissues are damaged and cause inflammatory pain, swelling, and tenderness. Uric acid crystals accumulate around the joints in gouts and cause pain, swelling, and stiffness.

Arthritis has no definite cure. Episodic pain and flare-ups are characteristics of arthritic pain. Topical, OTC, and prescription medications may alleviate joint discomfort. Exercise and splints also help with pain relief.


Thumb arthritis is a common type of hand arthritis. Arthritic thumb pain can cause intense pain, limit the thumb’s range of motion, and disrupt life’s daily flow. It is crucial to recognize the warning signs of arthritic pain as the signs sometimes overlap with other conditions.

Accurate treatment of arthritis helps the patient improve the QoL[3] through medical intervention. Here’s a study[4] highlighting the importance of timely treatment in patients with early RA. So, if you notice an unstable grip, a weak thumb, loss of motion, or swelling at the base of the thumb, make an appointment with the doctor.