If you notice increasing pain with activities as simple as opening a jar or turning a key, you likely are experiencing the effects of thumb arthritis, also known as basal joint arthritis. This condition is common in postmenopausal women, with nearly 25 percent of women eventually developing pain and other symptoms due to wear and tear on the joint at the base of the thumb.
For most women, thumb arthritis is not from prior injury. Men suffer from the condition with fewer incidences than women; however, male patients will frequently have a history of a prior injury.
The anatomy of the thumb basal joint depends upon two bones – the trapezium and the thumb metacarpal – along with several ligaments to maintain stability. These bones and ligaments are placed under tremendous stress on a daily basis. For example, if we pinch the equivalent of 10 pounds at the fingertip, the basal joint is placed under 120 pounds of pressure. During grasp, the basal joint may experience over 100 times the force. This repetitive force causes the ligaments to become thin, which leads to abnormal wear and, eventually, arthritis.
Treatment depends on the severity of the disease. Early disease typically responds to splinting and simple injections. As more conservative treatments become less effective and symptoms become unbearable, surgery becomes the best option for pain relief without limiting function.
Diagnosis is pain free. A simple evaluation and review of radiographs with an orthopedic surgeon usually is all that is necessary. Once diagnosis is confirmed, the physician and patient can tailor a team approach for the most effective treatment regimen.