We use our hands for a lot of activities and take their pain free operation for granted. You don’t realize how much you use your thumbs until they hurt. Every time you open a jar or grip anything you rely on thumb power. Try buttoning a shirt or pulling a zipper shut without use of your thumbs.
Contributing factors to thumb pain
- Activities requiring gripping a handle or bar (hand tools; hand weights; pan handles; tennis racquet; certain musical instruments for example)
- Work related use of hands and thumbs (massage therapists take note)
- Pulling weeds in your garden (pinch, pull and twist)
- Texting with your cell phone
- Trauma to the hand from accidents or falls
You might overuse muscles directly involved in moving the joints or you might overuse muscles in seemingly unrelated areas such as the shoulder or neck that can have an indirect impact on the thumb. For example, muscles in the neck called the Scalenes can refer symptoms into the thumb and hand. These muscles are involved in rotating the neck and in labored breathing. Head forward posture can also contribute to tightness in the scalene muscles.
Muscles that can contribute to thumb pain
Muscles that move the joints in the thumb arise from the long bones in the hand and forearm. There are muscle bellies encasing the actual thumb joint but only tendons that extend down to the phalanges or smaller bones that form the digit most of us call the thumb.
Tight muscles increase tension on their tendons which compress the thumb joints and cause the bones to rub together more than they need to. The muscles are encased in connective tissue which can restrict the mobility of the muscles. The ability of the muscle fibers to contract (shorten) or stretch (lengthen) has a profound effect on the range of movements of the joints.
Short muscles that have direct action on the thumb are found in the fleshy part of the thumb (called the thenar eminence) and can be stringy or ropey when pressed.
Longer muscles arising from the forearm bones (ulna, radius and interosseous membrane) are found on the outer and inner surfaces of the forearm.
In addition, trigger points in the muscles that operate the thumbs or the elbow and neck can refer pain and other symptoms into the thumb joints. Some of these include:
- Scalene muscles (neck)
- Supinator muscle (upper forearm)
- Brachioradialis (upper forearm)
- Brachialis (upper arm)
- Opponens pollicis (hand)
- Adductor pollicis (hand)
- Flexor pollicis longus (inner forearm)
- Pronator teres (upper forearm)
The infraspinatus, a rotator cuff muscle of the shoulder, may also refer into the thumb joint.
These muscles are reviewed in the instructional massage video covering the forearm and hand.
Actions you can take
While it is a great idea to perform preventative maintenance on the muscles of your forearms and thumbs our lives are often too busy to devote the time. The most common action is to take pain killers to address the symptoms. This approach often leads to increased or more frequent doses to mask the pain. Recent research warns of potential harmful side effects from the over consumption of over the counter pain medications.
What else can you do to restore pain free thumb operation?
It is always a good idea to have a medical professional examine for structural problems if possible. The most common diagnosis is osteoarthritis with a wearing away of articular cartilage or excess calcification in the joint capsule.
If no structural issues are noted, our experience has shown that tight muscles and connective tissues from continuous or over use contribute to a majority of thumb and finger aches and pains.
The therapeutic application of heat and/or cold to the forearm and thumb can restore range of motion and reduce pain sensations. If there are no signs of inflammation you can use a warm compress to loosen up the connective tissues and prepare the muscles for massage work.
Cold applications can reduce inflammation and reduce swelling and pain.
Essential oils and Aroma Therapy
Essential oils such as basil and marjoram have been used traditionally for relaxing tense muscles. Wintergreen and Copaiba essential oil contains chemical constituents to soothe inflamed tissues. Essential oil blends containing multiple, complementary oils such as Deep Relief roll-on and PanAway available from Young Living Essential Oil company support normal joint and muscle function. Aroma Therapy books are available for guidance in choosing and blending oils to support healthy tissue function.
Applying a warm compress on top of the essential oil of choice can enhance the effectiveness of the oil.
Soft tissue manipulation of the forearm and hand and thumb can bring a great deal of relief of symptoms. Depending upon the age and health of the person there are a variety of massage approaches that can be considered.
Although thumb pain is not limited to the older population they tend to suffer hand and finger pain more often and precautions must be taken. Getting the approval of attending physician for massage is a good idea.
If there are complicating factors such as blood thinner medications or fragile skin or blood vessels a gentler approach is suggested. Melting tight and stuck fascia (connective tissue) would be best. This can be accomplished with gentle pressure combined with forearm and hand movements.
For those capable of withstanding deeper pressure, lengthening and spreading of muscles and their associated connective tissue sheaths is effective.
Focus you efforts on the muscles around the thumb on the palm side of your hand. The long flexor muscle in the forearm for the thumb (flexor pollicis longus) runs along the long radius bone on the thumb side of the inner forearm. The muscle is deep and extends the length of the bone in many cases. The extensors of the thumb are somewhat shorter and are found just above the wrist on the outside of the forearm. Move the thumb around as you press into the muscles and you will feel them contract.
Addressing muscles in the upper arm, shoulder and neck may be necessary if myofascial structures in these areas are referring symptoms down into the hand and thumb.
An instructional video on effective massage for the forearm and hand is available for streaming.
The Spiral Synergy approach includes reflexive release of tension patterns in the forearm, elbow, wrist and hand. This is a gentle technique appropriate for anyone.
The beauty of this approach is that by positioning and playing with the small joints in the thumb and wrist, tension patterns in related muscles and joints throughout the body can relax due to the reflexive nerve connections.
An instructional video is available to learn more about the methods for the arm, hand and fingers.