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What Treatment Options are Available for Thumb Arthritis?

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What Treatment Options are Available for Thumb Arthritis?

Jun 15, 2022

We use our thumbs for just about everything, especially these days with smartphones. For people suffering from painful arthritis in the thumb, the condition can make daily life extremely difficult. Brittany Garcia, MD, a hand surgeon, discusses the different surgical and non-surgical options available to bring relief to patients with thumb arthritis.

Episode Transcript

Interviewer: You don't realize how much you really use and depend on your thumb until you can't use it anymore because it hurts so badly. And if you're suffering from thumb pain, it can have a drastic impact on your quality of life. Luckily, if you have thumb pain from thumb arthritis, there are some excellent nonsurgical and also surgical options to relieve the pain and get functionality back.

Dr. Brittany Garcia is a hand surgeon and an expert on thumb arthritis. And today, she's going to talk us through both the nonsurgical options to give you some relief from your thumb arthritis and also the surgical options and their effectiveness.

So let's start out here. If somebody has thumb pain, is it a good idea to go see their family doctor or a general practitioner first, or go to a specialist like yourself?

Dr. Garcia: First up is primary care physician because they have a lot of non-operative options that they can offer patients. So, usually, when you present to your primary care, most people will take some X-rays and then they'll be able to parse out, "Are there arthritic changes on your X-rays that we think are probably causing your pain? Or is this something else like the trigger finger, or carpal tunnel, or things like that?"

And then primary care can start with some of the non-operative options, such as splinting, activity modifications, referring to a hand therapist who can work on a home exercise program to strengthen the muscles around the joint.

I like to think of strengthening, which is a really good option, similar to an ACL. So if you've got weak quads and hamstrings and calf, you're probably more at risk of developing ACL tear. Well, similar to the base of the thumb. It seems silly, but you've got lots of small little muscles that attach around the base of the thumb, and strengthening those muscles likely offloads the forces and supports the joint in general.

Interviewer: Let's talk about some of those non-operative treatments first. So are there any downsides to any of those, or is it always kind of a best practice to start with the non-operative stuff first?

Dr. Garcia: Definitely best practice to start with non-operative treatment. And by doing non-operative therapies and trying those first, you don't necessarily drastically change what we're going to do surgically. So it's not like you're losing time or making the surgery much more complicated for us by trying these things first.

And certainly, for some people, while non-operative options don't necessarily take away the arthritis, and we know that, many of them can help quiet the arthritis.

And so the things that come to mind that are most common that we do is bracing, where we do a hand-based brace for the thumb to kind of support it from loading consistently in those types of movements that cause it to be painful. It's basically a rest thing. So if it hurts, then you rest it.

The other things that are commonly used are anti-inflammatory medications, as long as you don't have any other medical problems that would prohibit you from having them, such as kidney disease or issues with your stomach. But anti-inflammatories can be really helpful, both those that you take by mouth, as well as some topical anti-inflammatories.

I like to sell it to you straight. I'm not going to say this is a magical topical cream that's going make you feel 100% better, or take away your arthritis, or anything like that. But the goal with non-operative therapy is really to try to make you more comfortable to be able to do your normal activities of daily living, as well as your hobbies and things that you want to do without having pain that's limiting you.

Interviewer: When you do splinting to help relieve the pain, I thought I had read somewhere that that could relieve pain, but it could also cause weakness, which would be a concern to somebody who does use their hands for a living. Is that true?

Dr. Garcia: That's always a catch-22. Usually, my prescription, when I'm doing splinting with a patient, is I will try to have them wear that splint full time for about six to eight weeks to see if we can calm it down. So that includes daytime and nighttime with the exceptions of taking it off for showering and washing hands and hygiene and things like that.

Theoretically, there's a risk that, because you're not using those muscles, you get some weakening of that muscle. But I think if you can calm down the pain, then you're probably going to increase your function and gain that use back and bulk, so to speak, those muscles back up.

And the other thing is when you're having so much pain, you're probably not using it normally anyway. So there's probably some degree of deconditioning that people get just by having the pain and doing the splinting. But I think if you can get the pain under control by immobilizing that joint, then likely you bounce that back quite well.

And then the other thing I didn't mention, which is a nice non-operative option, is corticosteroid injections or steroid injections, which is commonly used in musculoskeletal conditions to help calm down the inflammation around the joint. So I sort of think of those as you're taking a dose of . . . it's sort of like putting ibuprofen right inside the joint to calm down inflammation.

"Itis," which is the end part of arthritis, is inflammation, so really this is an inflammatory process that's caused by the joint being overworked or overloaded. So putting steroid in that area can help calm down that inflammation and give people some pretty good relief.

Interviewer: Are there any downsides to the steroid injections?

Dr. Garcia: I like to use steroid injections for people who respond well to them and get a fairly long-lasting effect. It's really hard to predict exactly who's going to respond to them or who's not. And even if you've had an injection in the knee or the shoulder and it hasn't worked as well, it doesn't necessarily mean that it's not going to work in your hand. I've definitely had patients who've had injections in other places that haven't worked that well, and it's worked really well in the hand.

Interviewer: For surgical treatments, talk me through what considerations you have there. I think there are two different types of surgery, or is there just really kind of one that you tend to use most of the time? Help me understand that.

Dr. Garcia: There have actually been lots of different ways described to take care of arthritis here. Basically, they all culminate on taking out the trapezium bone, which is a small, little bone in the wrist that makes up the joint at the base of the thumb. And this is where most of your arthritis at the base of your thumb typically goes. So regardless of which type of procedure people choose to do, usually it all begins with taking out the trapezium.

And then there are a number of things that can be done to sort of stabilize or support the base of the thumb after you've taken out that little bone. That bone typically supports your metacarpal bone, which is the longer finger bone. It sits on that little bone.

So most people will take out the trapezium and then you can do a number of tendon-type procedures to support the base of the thumb. I like to do something called the suture suspensionplasty, which is where you take two of the tendons that are nearby and you suture them together underneath the metacarpal bone, which sort of acts as a soft tissue hammock or supportive structure for the base of the thumb now that that little arthritic bone is out. But people do a number of different iterations of that particular procedure.

Interviewer: And then after you get that procedure done, the goal is to reduce pain and improve functionality. How successful is that procedure at doing those two things?

Dr. Garcia: This CMC arthroplasty, which is what we call our surgery for this condition, is something that takes a long time to recover from, but people typically are very happy once they get recovered. So usually it involves some sort of immobilization like casting or splinting for about three months, exercises with our hand-specific occupational therapist to get the thumb back in good working condition and strong and get the range of motion back.

So people are sore for three to six months, but once they . . . They're slowly getting better, and once they get to kind of their maximum, I guess, potential of recovery, people are typically really happy with this surgery.

Interviewer: And that treatment, that pain relief will last for a while? The mobility will last for a while?

Dr. Garcia: Yeah, the goal is for that to kind of be one and done for people, that they get the surgery and then most people don't need any sort of revision surgeries or other procedures down the line for it. It typically takes care of it for the duration of their life, which is the goal of it.

Interviewer: And you've removed a bone, so is there going to be from a mobility standpoint anything different? Or when you go in and you make the other adjustments, it usually takes care of that?

Dr. Garcia: When we put the sort of supporting stuff at the base of the thumb, typically, people have pretty good motion. Obviously, after you come out of your splint or your cast after surgery, everybody is stiff. And any surgery around an area will make you stiff, particularly in the hand. But it doesn't necessarily take away motion.

Certainly, we have other options for different types of arthritis in your hand where we're actually fusing joints, and those are types of procedures we're definitely . . . you're very clear preoperatively with patients that they're going to lose motion at the joint that you're operating on. This is not one of those where we're talking to them about drastically decreasing motion.

Usually, people are using their thumb better because it no longer hurts. And so once we get them through that initial therapy period of getting the swelling down and the stiffness from surgery down, people's motion comes back pretty good.

And then the other thing I wanted to bring up, because we see it not infrequently, is carpal tunnel. People who have arthritis at the base of the thumb, we see in about 30% of patients, they also have carpal tunnel symptoms when they present to clinic. So that's always something that we're looking for at the same time because we don't want to miss that and not release their carpal tunnel if it's surgically something that makes sense based on their exam.

So any time they're coming to clinic, we're always teasing out, "Is your pain due to arthritis at your thumb? Is it due to the carpal tunnel? Is it due to both? And how much is contributing to what's going on?"

Interviewer: Oh, so you can get both of those done kind of at the same time.

Dr. Garcia: Exactly.

Interviewer: Dr. Garcia, that is some great information. I hope that it helps some people find some relief from their thumb pain and thumb arthritis. Before we go, though, do you have a takeaway, something we should take away from the conversation today?

Dr. Garcia: The most important thing is to know that we've got lots of options, both non-operative stuff that works really well and can get many people through without needing surgery, and then we have a good surgical option. It's just important to know that with the surgical option, there's a reasonable amount of recovery that goes along with it.