Chiropractor Chandler AZ

Carson Robertson
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Thumb Pain Causes & Treatment

Thumb pain is often thought of as having to do with arthritis. Sometimes that is true, but it is not always the case. You could be suffering through severe pain just thinking it is either arthritis and not know it could be something else. Many people don't contact a physician for thumb pain because arthritis is automatically thought to be the culprit, but there are many different causes for thumb pain besides arthritis. Trouble gripping and grabbing things is often a symptom of thumb pain, but people with arthritis should be able to grip, grab, pull, and perform all hand activities. Since your hands are an important part of your life and thumb pain can hinder their use, be aware of what condition or injury you might be suffering from. Different conditions have different symptoms, so knowing your symptoms could help with a diagnosis.

woman painful wrist
Symptoms of Thumb Pain

The most common symptom of thumb pain is that it gets worse with movement, especially grabbing and gripping items. During the grabbing/gripping motion, pain can occur at the base of your thumb and travel into your palm, causing your palm and thumb muscles to be sore. Those same muscles that are used for grabbing, are used to lift things. If the pain in your thumb is increasing while lifting something, such as a gallon of milk, you could be looking at something more than just a sore thumb. Sometimes the thumb pain can be sudden and sharp while gripping something, or it can be dull and gradually increase in discomfort. Intermittent pain can also be symptom of thumb pain; the pain doesn't have to be constant for there to be something incredibly wrong. Swelling around the base of your thumb and around the palm is a common symptom of thumb pain which is accompanied by tenderness to the touch. This tenderness is of the muscles, tendons, and joints within your thumb and hand. Another symptom that is common and often accompanies tenderness is bruising, which can be caused for many reasons.

Thumb Pain Caused by a Fall

Most of the time, thumb pain is caused from a fall. It is a natural reaction to stick out your hands to catch you from falling, and your hands end up paying the price. Force from a fall can cause many different injuries to your thumb. If your fall isn't too bad, your thumb will only suffer from acute fall injuries. These injuries include bruising from the force of the fall, tenderness on the palm and base of the thumb where you caught yourself, and some swelling.

trauma to your thumb

More severe falls can cause real trauma to your thumb. Fractures are common with traumatic falls. Depending on the force of your fall, the fractures to your thumb can range from moderate to severe. Fractures are accompanied with swelling and sharp pain. A fracture to the radius or ulna, the two bones in the forearm, will cause immediate pain. If the fracture is close to the wrist, the pain will travel down into your palm and your thumb.

A severe fall can also cause compression to the radial nerve. The radial nerve is located along the back of your arm and controls the movements of the tricep muscles. It is responsible for extending the wrist and the fingers, while also controlling the sensation part of your hands. Compression of the radial nerve may cause a tingling sensation in the arm and make it difficult to move the fingers.

Falls can also cause sprains to the ligaments in the wrists which cause palm and thumb pain. Ligaments are soft tissues that connect bones together at a joint. Sprains of the ligaments can range from minimal where there is a stretching of the ligament, or severe where there is a full tear of the ligament. The most common ligament in the wrist to be sprained is the scapho-lunate ligament which connects the scaphoid and lunate bones within the wrist. Injury to the ligaments of the wrist will make movement difficult and very painful. The pain is often referred to the base of the thumb and the palm.

Other Common Reasons for Thumb Pain

Besides a fall, thumb pain can be caused by chronic repetitive stress injuries. This includes activities such as sitting at a computer all day long with poor posture. Our poor posture affects more than we think. The muscles, tendons, and joints in our hands have to compensate for the poor posture to make the movements needed to work the computer. If we all had proper posture, our hands would be in the correct place at the computer and thumb pain would decrease.

thumb muscles 3 labeled

Any repetitive hand movements can cause palm and thumb pain. These movements can be done at work, home, or recreationally. Repetitive movements at work are often from working on a computer, while at home it could be movements like chopping ingredients for dinner. Common recreational repetitive movements that can cause palm and thumb pain are in sports like tennis or racquetball. These activities require the muscles in your hand to work overtime which can make them very sore at the end and manifest in thumb pain.

Over time, the symptoms and pain increase. The more you do the activity with the repetitive motion, the more your thumb and palm have a chance for pain. As you continue with these activities, you may notice hand stiffness, tightness, clumsiness, fatigue, and dull or sharp pain. Pain from repetitive activities are called overuse injuries. Even doing something simple over and over can lead to tendinitis in the thumb flexor. Tendinitis of the thumb is often referred to as De Quervain's Tendinosis and is the swelling of the tendons within the base of the thumb and will cause pain and tenderness of the thumb and wrist.

Diagnosis & Evaluation

Evaluation of the pain and swelling is the first step to figuring out the root problem of your thumb and palm pain. Noticing the range of motion, strength of fingers and thumb for flexion and extension can tell you if you are suffering from a fracture or a sprain. Can you move all your fingers and thumb properly? If not, you may be suffering from more than just a one-day hand soreness.

MRI and X-rays will not usually be ordered to evaluate mild to moderate muscle, tendon, and ligament injuries. Severe cases may utilize advanced imaging to rule out bone fractures, edema, nerve entrapments, tendon or muscle ruptures. X-rays are a simple and easy way to evaluate what's going on under the skin. X-rays of the bones in the hand and wrist can show any breaks or fractures in the wrist. The most common wrist fractures include distal radius fractures, trapezium fractures, fractures to the 1st metacarpal (thumb), and fractures to the 1st phalange bone.

A distal radius fracture is a fracture to the end of the radius bone by the wrist. The trapezium is a small bone at the base of the thumb and can be fractured by a hard blow to the back of the hand or a severe fall right on the thumb. The proximal and distal phalange are two bones within the thumb itself and a fracture to either one will cause severe thumb pain and palm tenderness. Fractures sometimes require surgery to realign the bones depending on which bones were fractured. If you are suffering from thumb pain, but a fracture as the cause is ruled out, conservative treatments can help improve movement and relieve pain without the need for surgery.

Home Treatments

At home the first step is always PRICE: protect, rest, ice, compress, and elevate. Reduce the stress and strain to the thumb. Over the counter nonsteroidal anti inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) as recommended by your doctor can help reduce pain and inflammation. Ice helps block the thumb pain and reduce swelling. Reducing arm and hand activity is also recommended to diminish thumb pain. Depending on the injury, a possible brace may be needed to keep the thumb and wrist stationary.

hand muscles posterior labeled

If following the home treatments doesn't improve your pain after two weeks, then seek a more rigorous treatment. Conservative treatment should always be the first stop because it can help immensely and lessen the possibility for surgery. It's also best to seek conservative treatment early in the pain because the longer the pain persists the longer and more difficult treatment becomes.

Medical Treatments

NSAIDs are often prescribed for the initial acute injury stages. In severe cases that involve multiple joint regions, muscle relaxers or oral steroids can be given. Trigger point injections, botox, or steroid injections can be treatment options, as well. Pain management is not usually required unless stronger medications or joint injections are involved in treatment.

Conservative Treatment

Therapeutic treatments for addressing soft tissue injuries involve massage therapy, manual therapy, trigger point therapy, Graston Technique, or Active Release Technique. These treatments increase blood flow, decrease muscle spasms, enhance flexibility, speed healing, and promote proper tissue repair. They eliminate nerve compression and entrapments while massaging the hand and forearm muscles relax all the tight muscles that cross the wrist, thumb, and hand.

de quervain's tenosynovitis

The Graston Technique is a very effective and popular treatment for muscle, tendon, ligament, and soft tissue injuries. This treatment uses specifically designed stainless steel instruments and therapeutic exercises to detect and treat areas of swelling and inflammation. The instruments are also designed to find and treat the cause of the symptom, as well as the area of the thumb pain. Adding the Graston Technique to any treatment plan decreases recovery time and reduces the need for anti-inflammatory medication.

Cold laser therapy is a noninvasive procedure, meaning no surgery is required. This treatment uses specific wavelengths of light to interact with thumb tissues. The non-thermal photons of light are emitted from the laser and pass through the skin layers to the damaged tissue where it interacts with the light-sensitive elements within the tissue. Cold laser therapy is often compared to photosynthesis because the tissue absorbs the light and converts it to useable energy, which aids the healing process and provides relief for thumb pain.

cold laser wrist hand treatment

Our Chandler Chiropractic & Physical Therapy clinic treats patients with a variety of muscle, tendon, joint, and ligament injuries. The clinic provides treatment for runners, tri-athletes, and weekend warriors in addition to common headache, neck, and back patients traditionally seen in Chiropractic, Physical Therapy, Massage Therapy clinics. We work with all ages and abilities of the residents in Phoenix, Tempe, Gilbert, Mesa, and Chandler AZ.