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Treating thumb arthritis

If the pain of arthritis in your thumb interferes with your everyday life, your GP may prescribe medication. They may also suggest a steroid injection into your thumb joint, which can reduce pain and inflammation and make it easier to use your hand.

A hand therapist will also be able to help, especially if your thumb isn't too deformed by the arthritis. They can make splints to take the pressure off your thumb when you're using your hands. These can be rigid or soft, depending on what works best for you.

Your hand therapist can also give you exercises to reduce your pain and inflammation and increase the flexibility and stability of your thumb. This will make it easier for you to use your hands.

An occupational therapist may be able to help you find different ways to do things and learn how to use any special equipment.

If these treatments don't help, your GP may consider referring you to see an orthopaedic surgeon, who may suggest an operation. In this case, your GP is likely to send you for an X-ray to find out how damaged your thumb joint is.

Surgery for arthritis of the thumb

If the pain and disability get too bad, you may need surgery, which is available through the public health system. There are different types of surgery for your thumb joint, depending on how damaged it is and what you want to be able to do. Your surgeon will talk with you about this.

No matter which type of surgery you have, it should decrease your pain and make it easier to do your daily tasks.

You may choose to pay to see a private orthopaedic surgeon and private hand therapist.

Recovering from surgery

After the operation, it's important to keep your hand raised as much as possible for the first two to five days. This helps to reduce swelling and pain. Try to keep your hand higher than your heart. It can help to put pillows and blankets under your arm when you go to bed.

Your hand and wrist will be in a cast for six weeks, so you won't be able to do many everyday tasks. It's important to exercise your shoulder several times a day by raising your arm above your head and reaching behind your back. This will help to stop your shoulder and elbow from becoming stiff.

Your surgeon will tell you when your cast will come off and will check how well your thumb and hand are moving. They'll also refer you to a hand therapist, who can splint your thumb if necessary and give you exercises that will help to strengthen your thumb, increase your movement and minimise the scar. The hand therapist can also help you return to everyday tasks as you gradually get better.

It's likely to be three to six months before you'll be comfortable fully using your thumb again.

Written by HealthInfo clinical advisers. Endorsed by Plastic Surgery Department, Canterbury DHB. Last reviewed March 2021.

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