Arthritis Conditions Osteoarthritis CMC Arthritis

What is thumb arthritis?

The human thumb discerns us from any other animal on earth with regards to the ability to pinch objects between other fingertips, to have a strong power grip, and the ability of the thumb to move in all directions, a motion that is described as circumduction. This is made possible by a unique joint (carpometacarpal joint (CMCJ)) where the metacarpal bone sits on a saddle-shaped bone called the trapezium and can move around in all different directions with the help of four hand muscles and four extrinsic long muscles that move the thumb around in space.

Thumb arthritis is very common and is, in fact, one of the most common presentations of osteoarthritis in the body (like hip or knee osteoarthritis). People suddenly realise how disabled they are once the thumb is crippled by the effect of hand osteoarthritis. Osteoarthritis of the hands most commonly starts in the trapezio-metacarpal joint but soon progresses to the neighbouring joints (STT arthritis), which exacerbates the pain.

Part of the degenerative process of CMCJ arthritis of the thumb is that the normal stabilising ligaments of this joint become stretched and weak, and the joint drifts into an abnormal position. The thumb becomes flexed and adducted (pulled closer to the palm), which disables the thumb's function to move in space and clear the first webspace.

What are the related symptoms of thumb arthritis?

The most common symptom of thumb arthritis is pain, which may occur at the base of your thumb when gripping, grasping or pinching an object or when forcefully using your thumb. Other symptoms may include:

  • Stiffness, swelling and tenderness at the base of your thumb
  • Decreased strength when grasping objects
  • Decreased range of motion
  • The enlarged or bony appearance of the joint at the base of your thumb

How is thumb arthritis treated?

The problem with osteoarthritis is that it is essentially a loss of cartilage, which is irreversible. The treatment, therefore, is very much focused on symptomatic relief of pain and restoration of function. Dr Dirk van der Spuy will recommend steroid injections to bring temporary relief, and some feel that splinting helps. There is an understanding that surgery becomes a good treatment modality once the disease has "burnt out" and no more cartilage is left.

There are a multitude of operations described. The principle of thumb surgery is to remove the trapezium bone, which is considered the source of the pain. Thumb surgery creates a void, and there are many ways described to surgically fill the void and prevent the thumb from collapsing. Recently, the treatment has been to suspend the thumb by reconstructing the stabilising ligaments.

The surgical outcome is generally good, with good to excellent results expected in up to 95% of procedures. Dr van der Spuy will immobilise your thumb and wrist for 2-4 weeks, and rehabilitation is recommended to achieve optimal results. Most patients are able to use their thumbs well, without pain, by three to four months after the thumb surgery, despite minimal residual limitations in pinch strength.


1Will the base of thumb arthritis disappear?
Unfortunately, there is no cure for base of thumb arthritis. However, conservative treatments exist to help relieve symptoms. You can discuss treatment options with your hand surgeon and hand therapist.
2What are the reasons for the base of thumb arthritis?
Base of thumb arthritis develops due to degenerative changes in the cartilage that covers the ends of the bones of a joint.
3Is thumb arthritis a serious condition?
Yes, without treatment, base of thumb arthritis leads to swelling, pain, limited strength and mobility of the joint.

Please read the above text for more in-depth information to help answer these questions. It's important to consult with our qualified healthcare professionals to ensure the appropriate diagnosis and treatment plan for your specific situation.


CMC arthritis before surgery

CMC arthritis after surgery trapeziectomy

CMC arthritis after surgery trapeziectomy