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Learning About Arthritis at the Base of the Thumb

Skeletal view of arthritis in the carpometacarpal joint

What is it?

Arthritis at the base of the thumb joint is wear and tear on the cartilage. Cartilage is a firm, thick, slippery tissue. It covers and protects the ends of bones where they meet to form a joint. When you have arthritis, there are changes in the cartilage that cause it to break down. The bones rub together and cause joint damage and pain.

What causes it?

Experts don't know what causes arthritis at the base of the thumb. But aging, a lot of use, an injury, or family history may play a part.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms of arthritis at the base of the thumb include aching in your joint. Or the pain may feel burning or sharp. You may feel clicking, creaking, or catching in the joint. It may get stiff. You may have more pain and less strength when you pinch or grip things.

Symptoms may come and go, stay the same, or get worse over time.

How is it diagnosed?

Your doctor can often diagnose arthritis by asking you questions about your joint pain and other symptoms and examining you. You may also have X-rays and blood tests. Blood tests can help make sure another disease isn't causing your symptoms.

How is it treated?

Arthritis at the base of your thumb may be treated with rest, pain relievers, steroid medicines, using a brace or splint, and—in some cases—surgery.

To help relieve pain in the joint, rest your sore hand. Switch hands for some activities. You can try heat and cold therapy, such as hot compresses, paraffin wax, cold packs, or ice massage.

Your doctor may give you a splint to wear during some activities or when pain flares up.

You can often manage mild or moderate arthritis pain with over-the-counter pain relievers. These include medicines that reduce swelling, such as ibuprofen or naproxen. You can also use acetaminophen. Sometimes these medicines are in creams that you can rub on your thumb and hand. Your doctor may also prescribe other medicine for your pain.

For some people, steroid shots may be an option.

If none of the treatments work, your doctor may discuss surgery with you.

Follow-up care is a key part of your treatment and safety. Be sure to make and go to all appointments, and call your doctor or nurse advice line (811 in most provinces and territories) if you are having problems. It's also a good idea to know your test results and keep a list of the medicines you take.

Where can you learn more?

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