We like to think we understand the human body pretty well these days. Given the advancements made by science, as well as the increased accessibility of whatever accumulated knowledge science has been able to turn up, it’s not surprising that we expect to have a fairly comfortable understanding of the way the human body works, what it needs to keep it going, and how to come back from injury and otherwise avoid pain. It’s totally understandable, especially since modern medicine has enabled us to more conveniently battle back against formerly troublesome issues like allergies and even nerve and muscle pain, with medication one can pick up on a regular day out.
However, with all the speed and convenience this affords us, certain things are often taken for granted. For instance, how often do you stop to think about how useful – and in fact crucial to the most basic daily tasks – your thumbs are? Opposable thumbs have allowed us to reach new heights of development, and everything we do in a day from picking up spoons and forks to writing to turning door knobs to driving involves the use of these and our other digits. Imagine the standstill your life would grind to if you were suddenly unable to do most of these things.
Why Does Thumb Pain Come About?
The thumb is an incredibly useful joint, but a joint nonetheless, and this makes it easier to trace the symptoms to their root cause. The thumb joint in particular is quite mobile as a joint, seeing movement and involvement in all of the aforementioned tasks. The more we use a joint, the more we expose it to overuse injuries or other sorts of ailments. For instance, the part of the thumb that can be susceptible to stress is the CMC, or carpometacarpal or basal joint. This complex joint articulates and engages with the wrist’s trapezium bone, and is formed by the metacarpal bone. Excessive stress on this joint, as well as on the tendons and ligaments around it, are usually what bring about thumb joint pain.
In some cases, our thumbs can get injured. Hand injuries can be quite common depending on the routine – sometimes something as unexpected as getting the hand caught in a door, landing on it after a bad slip, and so on. A jammed thumb is not unusual these days, and indeed cases where the ligament is sprained are sadly common occasions for thumb joint pain to make itself felt. Others might encounter thumb joint pain due to more systemic causes, like rheumatoid arthritis, which comes with its own fairly harrowing complications, or carpal tunnel syndrome, which sees the median nerve at the wrist get compressed due to activity.
Symptoms and Diagnosis
Thumb joint pain is recognizable thanks to what its name suggests – pain in the thumb joint – usually in the form of stiffness and difficulty in gripping. Tenderness and swelling in the area are likely to accompany these problems when this sets in. As the ailment progresses, range of motion, dexterity and ability to perform tasks will be impeded. Gripping door knobs to turn them, maintaining a hand grip on something picked up, and so on – these will typically become progressively more difficult due to problems with closing the thumb on the grip due to inflammation, and pain rendering keeping the grip impossible. Either way, it is urgent to deal with these symptoms as quickly as possible in order to regain this lost range of motion, not to mention the ability to perform basic everyday tasks that is lost with the thumb’s regular capability in such a scenario.
Different Treatments for the Thumb
Treatment for thumb joint pain is best done with conservative treatment. Simply resting the joint, which is standard for any joint injury, is essential because it allows the joint an opportunity to heal itself. Usually when joint pain strikes as a result of overuse or strain it is because the tendons and ligaments have sustained enough stress to cause damage, and as such allowing them to rebuild is helpful. If the joint sustains enough trauma to have seriously damaged a ligament, the recovery process can take up to 6-8 weeks. This can be helped along with plenty of the aforementioned rest, as well as keeping the joint on ice and compressed.
Physical therapy for thumb joint pain should be done under a doctor’s recommendation. In fact, in particular cases you may need to have a physical therapist on hand to manage this for you. At the very least, your doctor should sign off on exercises and therapy you plan to subject your joint to. The simplest form of therapy would likely come in the form of some exercises.
- Thumb abduction stretch – hold the injured hand upward in front of you as if you were going to reach out for arm wrestling. With your other hand, grasp the thumb and gently pull it away from the palm. Hold this for 20 seconds. This can be repeated for 20 stretches and done thrice a day.
- Thumb MCP flexion stretch – Holding your hand as above but with the palm facing you, grasp the thumb at the base joint and bend it until it is fully bent at that joint. Hold this for 20 seconds. This can be repeated for two stretches and done three times a day.
- Thumb extension stretch (table) – place the injured hand palm down on a table with the thumb lying next to the fingers. Using your other hand, grasp the thumb at the base joint and gently pull the thumb away from the fingers as a stretch, holding this for 20 seconds. This can be done for two reps, three times a day.
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