Why do my thumbs hurt?
July 1, 2013 2:32 PM   Subscribe

Over the past four or five months I've had pain and stiffness in my thumbs. It started in my right thumb (I'm right handed) and then I noticed it in my left as well. It now seems to be worse in my left - my left thumb hurts a bit more than my right and I can't bend it quite as far. What is likely to be causing this?

It's not that bad - I don't need painkillers or anything. But it's definitely noticeable most of the time. And yesterday, my friend grabbed my left hand unexpectedly and accidentally squeezed my thumb, and it hurt enough to make me yelp.

I also seem to be noticing a little pain in my other finger joints as well, although I think that might just be because I'm paying way more attention to my hands than I would normally.

I'm guessing this is going to be some sort of carpal tunnel/RSI/'Blackberry thumb' type thing. I spend a lot of time on computers (post-grad student, just started an office job, spend a lot of time on my laptop) and I have a smartphone, although I don't spend that much time typing on it.

But it would be useful to narrow it down a bit. So, does anyone have any suggestions as to what this might be specifically and if there's anything I can do to treat it? I've tried googling but there are endless sites about RSI/carpal tunnel/etc and they all seem to say conflicting things. (Use a wrist brace/don't use a wrist brace, carpal tunnel does/doesn't affect the thumbs, etc…)

I don't have any pain in my wrists or arms, the pain isn't noticeably worse in the mornings, and the joints don't seem to be swollen.

If I need to, I'll go to my GP but it's a bit of a hassle so I don't want to bother if she's just going to tell me to lay off my computer use for a while.

Thanks all!
posted by badmoonrising to Health & Fitness (13 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Out of left field, but are you getting enough potassium? Maybe try a banana+strawberry smoothie (or eat some fruit) and see if it helps.
posted by Celsius1414 at 2:39 PM on July 1, 2013

I spend a lot of time on computers (post-grad student, just started an office job, spend a lot of time on my laptop)

Make sure your posture and wrist position are good at both work and home.
posted by Specklet at 2:41 PM on July 1, 2013

My husband had this, it started in his thumbs, first on one side and then spreading to the other, then to his fingers. It was initially hopefully treated as tendonitis, but turned out to be autoimmune (psoriatic) arthritis.

Repetitive strain can affect any joint, but your pattern is so much like his that I'd see your GP to rule out autoimmune arthritis; if that's your diagnosis, starting treatment fast can make a big difference in prognosis. It's just bloodwork and an X-ray.
posted by KathrynT at 2:42 PM on July 1, 2013 [4 favorites]

Could be arthritis, even if the joints aren't noticeably swollen.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 2:44 PM on July 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

(I'm writing this assuming RSI, instead of arthritis or anything else.) I'd suggest a visit to your doc anyway, because you really do not want this thing to become chronic (I speak from bitter, bitter experience of over a decade of painful wrists), but for what it's worth, on my doctor's advice, I manage my wrist problems by using a wrist brace at night and times when I'm not using my wrist much (driving, reading). What I was told is that we hold our hands in funny positions as we sleep, and the brace allows everything to be held still, without compressing any of the bits inside the wrist, to allow them time to rest and heal.

I know you said your thumbs were hurting, not your wrists, but I expect much the same thing could be applied to your situation: find a brace that holds your thumb in a reasonably rigid position, and wear it overnight. I use a trackball because of my wrists and occasionally get trackball thumb, but switching to a different input method, usually a track pad in my case, for a few days allows my thumb to rest.
posted by telophase at 2:47 PM on July 1, 2013

De Quervain's syndrome? The Finkelstein test is easy and will cause extreme pain if you have it.
posted by fiercekitten at 6:07 PM on July 1, 2013

Seconding KathrynT's suggestion to see a doctor to rule out psoriatic arthritis. I have it, and it started with pain and stiffness in one thumb around age 30. (And that one-sided presentation in late 20s to early 30s is pretty typical of psoriatic arthritis.) It sounds alarming (autoimmune disorder!), but it's very manageable -- provided you get the proper diagnosis, which can then get you the proper treatment (when I finally got to see a proper rheumatologist, that made all the difference).

It may not be any kind of arthritis after all, but it's definitely worth looking into.
posted by fikri at 6:46 PM on July 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

Nthing getting checked for psoriatic arthritis. This is how mine started as well. Do you ever have a problem curling your fingers into a fist when you first wake up? That started shortly after the thumb pain for me.

It's a degenerative disease so if you can afford treatment you really want to start it sooner rather than later.
posted by Jacqueline at 7:10 PM on July 1, 2013

Response by poster: Yikes, OK, I wasn't expecting all the answers about arthritis. Guess I'm off to the GP then!

Thanks very much to everyone for the advice and sharing their experiences.

De Quervain's syndrome? The Finkelstein test is easy and will cause extreme pain if you have it.

That test hurts my thumbs but doesn't hurt my wrists or forearms.

Out of left field, but are you getting enough potassium? Maybe try a banana+strawberry smoothie (or eat some fruit) and see if it helps.

I have no idea, but getting to eat banana and strawberry smoothies and calling them medicinal would be one of the best things ever! I know what I'm having for breakfast...

Thanks again, everyone!
posted by badmoonrising at 11:57 PM on July 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

Just another data point that my psoriatic arthritis presented asymmetrically in my thumbs (and knees).
posted by Pax at 5:04 AM on July 2, 2013

Arthritis presents itself slowly. Definitely worth checking out.
posted by h00py at 6:46 AM on July 2, 2013

Also worth trying some fish oil supplements -- they're one of the few credible dietary treatments for arthritis-like symptoms that I found during a search for what ended up being clustered as "premenopausal symptoms" (thanks for a newly pathologized life stage!), and mine went away within a few days of starting fish oil-based Omega-3 supplements. (Subsequent experience has confirmed this, as the joint aches came back when I ran out briefly.)
posted by acm at 8:18 AM on July 2, 2013

Absolutely go to the doctor, especially if you feel you're not doing anything significant to warrant the amount of pain you're getting. It may well be arthritis.

I will say that when I was playing video games a lot more, I got what I joked about as being 'Playstation's thumb' -- it was in response to an intense game where I was using my fingers and thumb a lot more suddenly, and at first, I hadn't even realized that's what it was. It was in both hands, like you. It made my whole hand ache, but especially my thumb, but mostly when I flexed them.

When I stopped playing, the pain went away. It absolutely had to do with the new game I'd been playing. It's happened on the PC, too. Could it be you're just doing something more intensely with your hands without realizing it?
posted by Dimes at 11:31 AM on July 2, 2013

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