A painful thumb joint can make even the simplest daily tasks uncomfortable. Causes of thumb joint pain include a variety of injuries and conditions that affect the bones and soft tissue. Pain may occur immediately after trauma to your thumb or come on more gradually. Because serious medical conditions, such as infection, can cause joint pain, see your doctor to determine the cause of and best treatment for your thumb pain.
Arthritis is a leading cause of thumb joint pain. According to a study published in April 2011 in the journal "Rheumatology," the first and second joints of the thumb are the most common hand joints affected by osteoarthritis. Cartilage provides padding between the bones in your thumb joints. With osteoarthritis, this cartilage gradually wears away. The bones eventually rub together, causing pain. Rheumatoid arthritis is another arthritic condition that frequently affects the thumb joints. With this condition, your body to mistakenly attacks your joints, damaging the cartilage and soft tissue.
Joint pain caused by thumb arthritis gradually worsens. Fine motor activities, such as writing and pinching tasks, like carrying a dinner plate, cause sharp joint pain. As the condition progresses, you may feel aching pain in your thumb joints at rest.
Fractures in your thumb bones are a consideration when joint pain develops in association with a traumatic injury. The most common fracture involving a thumb joint is called a Bennett fracture. This injury affects the thumb joint approximately 1 inch above your wrist. In addition to pain, you may experience swelling and bruising around the joint. Fractures in the thumb joints typically occur from a fall on an outstretched hand, sports activities or other trauma to the thumb. The pain is sharp and increases when you attempt to use your thumb.
Thumb fractures can be serious. Fractures at the end of a bone may limit your ability to move the joint. Surgery is sometimes necessary to stabilize the broken bone and keep it in the correct position as it heals.
Tendons connect the muscles to the bones in your thumb. Tendons attach close to the thumb joints, allowing you to bend and straighten the tip and base of your thumb, and to move the base from side to side. When these tendons are overstretched or overworked, they typically cause pain. Inflammation causes the tendon to swell, increasing friction and pain as you move your thumb. Trauma and overstretching can cause a partial or complete thumb tendon tear. These injuries typically affect the tendons that bend and straighten the tip of your thumb, causing pain at the joint closest to the tip of your thumb.
With a complete thumb tendon tear, the pain may gradually subside after the initial injury. But your ability to bend or straighten the joint is likely to be limited, depending on which tendon is torn. Seek medical attention immediately if you are unable to move your painful thumb joint because torn tendons typically require surgical repair.
Ligaments attach bone to bone, keeping your joints stable. Trauma or overstretching can damage thumb ligaments. Two main ligaments support the base of your thumb, the ulnar collateral and radial collateral ligaments. The ulnar collateral ligament is more commonly injured. This injury is often called skier's thumb because it often occurs when the thumb is forced away from the hand as a skier's hand lands on the ski pole or the ground. This injury occurs with other types of activities as well.
Thumb ligament injuries typically cause sharp pain at the joint where the thumb meets your hand. Pain increases with activities that require pinching. Although stretched ligaments often heal with splinting and rest, severe tears may require surgery.
Although bone and soft tissue injuries account for most cases of thumb joint pain, other medical conditions can also cause this symptom. For example, infection of a thumb joint, or septic arthritis, causes warmth, swelling, tenderness and limited mobility. This condition requires immediate medical care. Examples of other possible causes of thumb joint pain include:
-- gout and pseudogout
-- psoriatic arthritis
-- systemic lupus erythematosus
-- bone and soft tissue tumors
-- De Quervain tendinosis
Warnings and Precautions
See your doctor as soon as possible if you experience thumb joint pain associated with an injury, fall or accident. Urgent medical care is needed if you develop thumb joint pain accompanied by any warning signs or symptoms, including:
-- fever or chills
-- inability to move your thumb
-- rapidly expanding redness and swelling
-- worsening or severe pain
Reviewed and revised by: Tina M. St. John, M.D.