Osteoarthritis of the thumb

This information is useful for those who have been diagnosed with OA thumb. People who are experiencing new or ongoing symptoms should contact a healthcare professional for assessment and diagnosis.

Read more about self-managing wrist, hand and finger problems

What is Osteoarthritis of the thumb?

Osteoarthritis (OA) is the most common form of arthritis in the UK, affecting a large proportion of the population.

It's caused by changes in the cartilage that cover the end of the bone within the joint. The cartilage becomes thin and rough, and can make movement of the joint difficult.

Osteoarthritis can develop at any age, but usually appears after the age of 45. It can also develop after trauma to the thumb or wrist area.

It mainly affects the joint at the base of your thumb. It can become painful, swollen and difficult to use if you have OA.

Most people will be able to control the symptoms so that it doesn’t interfere with normal activities. Early management can help to prevent further symptoms and joint damage.

What are the symptoms of osteoarthritis of the thumb?

Symptoms vary from person to person. Common symptoms include:

  • swelling
  • pain
  • loss of movement and strength around the thumb and wrist
  • reduced ability to grip, twist or pinch with the thumb

Read more about osteoarthritis

How is osteoarthritis of the thumb diagnosed?

In order for your thumb problem to be diagnosed you will need an assessment from a healthcare professional.

They'll initially ask you questions about your thumb issue and then carry out a physical examination. This may include checking your range of movement and strength.

You may sometimes need to have a further examination to rule out other possible health conditions

How is osteoarthritis of the thumb treated?

It's important to keep the thumb moving and strong. This may help reduce your pain and any inflammation around the joint.

Spreading your activities throughout the day can help make your tasks more manageable.

Exercises can help to improve the thumb posture and make it easier to carry out your activities.

Versus Arthritis have advice on using certain aids or other tools to help with activities.

Managing pain

Pain medication can help you move more comfortably, which can help your recovery.

More about taking painkillers

Thumb splint 

A splint is often advised by your healthcare professional as a first treatment option. The aim of the splint is to support the thumb to reduce pain. This shouldn't stop you from keeping your thumb mobile during the day.

You may sometimes need to use a splint during the day when carrying out repetitive activities, it's not advised to wear this all the time. You may only need to use this for a few weeks in order to settle the symptoms.

Corticosteroid injections 

If painkillers aren't helping to control the pain, your healthcare professional may discuss the option of having a corticosteroid injection into the base of the thumb joint.

Corticosteroids are medicines that help reduce pain and inflammation. They may also be given with a local anaesthetic.

Injections may not cure your condition, they are used to help with the pain.

Read more about corticosteroids


In some cases, surgery may be an option if all other treatment options have been tried. The operation is called a trapeziectomy and involves removing a small bone at the base of the thumb to reduce pain.  


Osteoarthritis can sometimes mean you need to take some time off work to help recovery. How long you're off will depend on the nature of your condition and your role at work.

You do not need to be symptom free before you consider returning to work. Continuing to go to work, or returning to work as soon as is possible for you, will help your recovery. Gradually getting back to your normal daily activities can help to build up your strength and stamina levels.

Help and support  

Following this advice, you should see gradual improvements over time. 

If your symptoms haven't improved, or it's got worse, within 6 weeks of following this advice, talk to a healthcare professional about your symptoms. 

Find out how to access MSK services in your area

When dealing with any health condition it's important to also look after your mental wellbeing as this can impact your recovery.

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Source: MSK Expert Panel

Last updated:
16 June 2023