Thumb arthritis is the most common form of osteoarthritis which affects the hand. Thumb arthritis, or basal joint arthritis, occurs when the cushioning cartilage erodes from the adjoining ends of the bones that form the thumb joint.

Thumb arthritis can cause hand pain, swelling, and decreased strength and range of movement. The treatment for thumb arthritis may include self-care measures, splints, medication or corticosteroid injections. Surgery may also be necessary.


Pain is the first and most common symptom of thumb arthritis. It occurs at the base of the thumb when gripping, grasping or pinching an object between the thumb and forefinger or use the thumb to press on something. Pain may be felt even when not using the thumb.

Other signs and symptoms are:

  • Decreased range of movement
  • Swelling, stiffness and tenderness at the base of the thumb
  • Decreased strength when pinching or grasping objects
  • Enlarged, bony or out-of-joint appearance of the joint at the base of the thumb


Thumb arthritis is usually a result of trauma or injury to the joint. People also develop thumb arthritis in association with osteoarthritis in their larger joints.

Normally the basal joint, the cartilage covers the ends of the bones, thus acting as a cushion and allowing bones to glide smoothly against each other. In case of thumb arthritis, the cartilage that covers the ends of the bones wears away and its smooth surface roughens. This makes the bones rub against each other, which leads to friction and joint damage.

The joint may be damaged so severely that as a result a new bone grows along the sides of the existing bone. This can produce noticeable lumps on the thumb joint.

Risk Factors

These factors may increase the risk of thumb arthritis:

  • Being female
  • Age 40 or older
  • Some hereditary conditions, such as joint ligament laxity and malformed joints
  • Injuries to the basal joint, such as fractures and sprains
  • Diseases that change the normal structure and function of the cartilage, such as rheumatoid arthritis
  • Certain activities and jobs that put high stress on this joint


Although complications are rare, infection, blood vessel injury, nerve injury, continued pain and thumb deformity can occur after the surgery.


The use of a splint to support the joint and limit the movement of the thumb and wrist may be used. Splints help: decrease pain, encourage proper positioning, rest the joint. A splint may be used just at night or throughout the day and night.


To relieve the pain, the doctor may recommend oral and topical medications, pain killers and relievers. In addition, injections may be recommended when the  combination of analgesics and splint use is not effective. Surgery is recommended when other treatments failed to help and when the patient cannot bend or twist the thumbs


Self-care measures can help relieve pain and improve mobility. Here is what may help:

  • Perform special exercises. The exercises should move the thumb through its full range of motion.
  • Apply heat or cold. This will help relieve swelling and pain and soothe the joints.
  • Avoid hand clenching when you carry things.