Non-Surgical Alternatives for Thumb Osteoarthritis

Ross A. Hauser, MD., Danielle R. Steilen-Matias, MMS, PA-C.

Thumb Osteoarthritis Surgery Alternatives

In many patients we see with thumb pain and restricted motion, they have self-managed their thumb problems for as long as they could before pain and loss of mobility, and, especially grip strength and inability to sleep at night makes self-management difficult at best. At this time the patient will seek out their doctor who will likely refer them to the orthopedist for more specialized help.

As with other joints, many patients are often surprised that their doctor and orthopedist are making the same recommendations for treatment that they, the patient, were using to self manage: non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications except in stronger doses or a better splint than the one the patient bought for themselves.

When these treatments were not helpful, after a short go-round, cortisone injections were recommended, physical therapy was prescribed, and then after a few weeks or months, the reality of this managed conservative program’s effectiveness set it. It was not working that well. So now, according to your clinician, you have reached the fork in the road. Surgery or “live with it.”

Article outline:

  • Thumb Osteoarthritis Surgery or live with it, is there no other way?
    • A patient comes into our office, they tell a familiar story of thumb pain.
    • Conservative care options for someone whose thumb slips out of place.
    • Patients are trying to manage their pain. But their thumb really hurts.
    • However, the more positive the expectation of conservative care treatment for thumb osteoarthritis, the better the outcomes for many.
    • But what if the patient does not succeed at conservative care options for thumb osteoarthritis? Is surgery the only choice? In this segment, we will explore research on surgery.
  • In four women who had Trapeziometacarpal joint replacement – their thumbs did not return to a more natural range of motion.
  • Pain on load and weakness remains to some extent 1 year after surgery for trapeziometacarpal joint arthritis.
  • Thumb osteoarthritis is caused by joint instability due to ligaments that are weakened or damaged by overuse or by a traumatic injury.
    • To restore a more natural movement to the thumb joint, you have to examine and explore the repair of the thumb’s ligaments.
  • Trapeziometacarpal joint surgery causes wrist problems and wrist instability.
  • What do weakened ligaments in the thumb do? Cause pain, loss of motion, loss of grip strength, and cause osteoarthritis. “So I have no grip strength because of the thumb ligaments?”
    • Why occupational or physical therapy was only a little help and only delayed thumb surgery.
    • Physical or occupational therapy was seen as helpful for some, not all, and many go on to surgery anyway. Why?
  • Surgery for osteoarthritis of the thumb often includes ligament reconstruction with a tendon and bone removal.
  • Thumb medicine can sometimes be very amazing in its desire to do the most complicated and invasive things.
  • Joint replacement can be considered in selected patients who require greater strength and range of motion, although it has been associated with a higher complication rate.
  • Trapeziectomy with or without ligament reconstruction is still considered the gold standard, but the challenges associated with treating its complications limit its indications.
  • Medicine can sometimes be very amazing in its desire to do the most complicated and invasive things. Like performing two surgeries when one would have offered similar results with less trauma to the patient.
  • Injections for thumb osteoarthritis.
  • Ultrasound showing joint instability in a patient with osteoarthritic fingers and thumb.
  • Non-surgical options for thumb arthritis: The research on Prolotherapy.
  • Thumb Joint boutonniere deformity.
  • Platelet Rich Plasma (PRP) for thumb osteoarthritis.
    • The professional pianist returns to the piano
  • PRP vs cortisone thumb injections.
  • The combined use of PRP and Prolotherapy.
  • Bone marrow aspirate concentrate injections.

Thumb metacarpophalangeal joint instability

In this image we see:

  • Overstretched palmar plate at the metacarpophalangeal joint: The thumb is hyperextending in one direction.
  • Taut flexor pollicis longus. The thumb’s flexor pollicis longus is the muscle that flexes (allows the bending) of the interphalangeal joint of the thumb.
  • Extensor pollicis longus. The muscle that allows you to bend your thumb back as in a hitchhiker’s pose.

The illustration also demonstrates ligament damage and the instability it causes at the dislocated carpometacarpal joint.

 

Thumb metacarpophalangeal joint instability

Thumb Osteoarthritis Surgery or live with it, is there no other way?

In April 2022, doctors at the University of Oxford published the results of a survey conducted among health care professionals basically on how they treat thumb osteoarthritis. The results appeared in the journal Bone & Joint Open (26)

The study authors write: “Osteoarthritis affecting the thumb carpometacarpal joint (CMCJ) is a common painful condition. In this study, we aimed to explore clinicians’ approach to management with a particular focus on the role of specific interventions that will inform the design of future clinical trials.”

The authors here are asking their fellow clinicians for guidance on what studies should be conducted in the future to test the effectiveness of current interventions for thumb osteoarthritis. In this survey 24 clinicians, consisting of 12 surgeons and 12 therapists (four occupational therapists and eight physiotherapists) who managed patients with thumb carpometacarpal joint osteoarthritis were asked about how they would treat the patient.

As far as clinical management was concerned, six treatment protocols were recognized as being a recurrent theme.

  1. A flexible ‘ladder’ approach starts with conservative treatment first;
    1. Start with weak less powerful medication or treatments and work your way up to stronger doses.
  2. The flexible or adjustable recommendations of steroid injection;
  3. Surgery is an invasive and risky last resort;
  4. A shared and collaborative approach; (medical professionals working as a multi-treatment offering group);
  5. Treating the whole person; (holistic and wellness) and
  6. The severity of life impact influences treatment. (Generally surgical recommendation).

In this article, we will examine surgical and non-surgical options. The non-surgical options we will present here are likely new to you as they are not part of the well-accepted “conservative care,” option. In this article, we will talk about regenerative injection techniques that include Prolotherapy. In our clinic, we see and have seen many patients with thumb osteoarthritis. The reason that we see them is that these patients seek out an alternative to thumb surgery.

A patient comes into our office, they tell a familiar story of thumb pain.

We have been hearing from thumb pain patients for more than 27 years now. Let’s see how familiar these patient’s stories sound to you:

I am being recommended to have surgery. My doctor sees no other way.

  • I have had the cortisone, I wear the hard splints, I take the anti-inflammatories, I have altered my movements to protect my thumbs. I am “bone on bone,” and my grip strength gets worse by the day. I have been getting treatments for 2 – 3 years now and my situation is just getting worse. I have been told to make a choice, surgery, or wear splints all the time. I am hoping you have another option for me.

I already had surgery on my right thumb, I guess it went well.

  • My physical therapist says it went well, and my surgeon says it went well, but now the problem is my left hand. I am concerned because in my right thumb, the one that was operated on, I still have pain, I don’t have the strength I thought I would have. I am even dropping things more now than before the surgery. I want to explore something different on the left side.

 I need to do something different. My daily routine is to make sure that I have gel pads in the freezer so I can ice my thumb/wrist throughout the day.

  • I fill my pill dispenser with my daily “allowable” pain medications and anti-inflammatories and check online if a new or better splint is available. I made an appointment to see you because I am at the mercy of my thumbs. The latest pain episode started innocently enough, I tried to open my car door. A few minutes of pain later I was finally able to get the door open.  

When people reach the point that these people have, the pressure to have surgery becomes stronger and stronger. But is surgery the answer? For some people, it works great, for others, it does not work great. Let’s get to the research.

Conservative care options for someone whose thumb slips out of place

Doctors at the Royal North Shore Hospital and Institute of Bone and Joint Research, Kolling Institute at the University of Sydney, published these July 2021 findings in the journal Osteoarthritis and Cartilage (1). Here the doctors of this study investigated the combined effects of variously applied conservative therapies.

The people in this study, suffering from radiographic and symptomatic thumb osteoarthritis, were divided into groups that compared a combination of education on self-management and ergonomic principles, a prefabricated neoprene splint, hand exercises, and diclofenac sodium gel (a topically applied pain medication), with patients who were given patient education alone (to see how they would self-manage their thumb pain).

  • The doctors then looked for primary outcomes.
    • Change in pain and hand function from baseline to week-6.
    • Other outcomes were grip and tip-pinch strength and patient’s global assessment (this is the patient’s assessment of their thumb pain impacting their lives. Did it get better, worse, remain the same?)
  • The treatment effects of the combined intervention at 6 weeks were greater in participants with lower joint subluxation compared with those with greater subluxation
  • Conclusion: A combination of conservative therapies may provide greater benefits over 6 weeks in individuals with lower joint subluxation, although the clinical relevance is uncertain given the wide confidence intervals. Treatment strategies may need to be customized for those with greater joint subluxation.

In other words, it is hard to tell if splints, exercise, gels, and creams help patients with thumb instability. The worse the instability, the worse these treatments work.

Patients are trying. But their thumb really hurts

Doctors often look at patients and try to assess the patient’s ability to adhere to a program. For some people, especially those in a lot of pain, adherence to conservative care options may be difficult. Again, the doctors at the Royal North Shore Hospital and Institute of Bone and Joint Research, Kolling Institute at the University of Sydney, published, this time in the Journal of Hand Therapy, (2) these May 2021 findings on adherence to conservative care options for thumb pain.

In this research, the doctors examined adherence to prescribed conservative interventions in patients with thumb osteoarthritis to determine whether baseline pain and hand function is associated with treatment adherence over a 12-week period. Here the doctors suggested: “high baseline pain was associated with better adherence in participants with thumb base osteoarthritis. Higher baseline functional impairment was not associated with better adherence.”

If a patient had a lot of pain, they stayed with the conservative care program. If the patient had more of a functional issue, they did not. This is something we see in our patients. Treatments are usually when a situation is becoming more painful or acute. When the pain lessens, less adherence even though the function of the hand and thumb is less than needed. The researchers in this study found, that in their group of patients, treatments are dictated by pain over function.

However, the more positive the expectation of conservative care treatment for thumb osteoarthritis, the better the outcomes for many.

Doctors at the Department of Plastic, Reconstructive, and Hand Surgery, Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands offered this viewpoint on conservative care outcomes. Writing in the journal Disability and Rehabilitation, the doctors made these observations in their July 2021 study. (3)

“More positive outcome expectations and illness perceptions are associated with better outcomes for patients with several osteoarthritic orthopedic conditions.  . . We found that positive outcome expectations and a better illness understanding, were associated with a better outcome of non-operative treatment for first carpometacarpal osteoarthritis.  Non-operative treatment can often be successful for patients with arthritis of the thumb. . . .Improving the outcome expectations and illness perceptions of patients through better education could improve the outcome of non-operative treatment.”

But what if the patient does not succeed at conservative care options for thumb osteoarthritis? Is surgery the only choice? In this segment, we will explore research on surgery.

Surgeons express concern with thumb joint replacement implants. September 2019, The Journal of Hand Surgery. Research study: Failure Rates of Base of Thumb Arthritis Surgery: A Systematic Review. (4)

In this research, surgeons wrote: “Several implant designs (arthroplasties) had high rates of failure due to aseptic loosening, dislocation, and persisting pain. Furthermore, some implants had higher than anticipated failure rates than other implants within each class. Overall, the failure rates of non-implant techniques were lower than those of implant arthroplasty.”

In other words, several implants presented a lot of problems. Some implants are far more problematic than others. Surgery, or treatment without the implants, had lower complication rates.”

An August 2020 study in The Journal of Hand Surgery (5) simply suggests, “There is a lack of consensus on critical outcomes after surgery for thumb CMC joint osteoarthritis.

However a May 2021 study (6) from doctors at the Epsom & St Helier University Hospitals in the United Kingdom and published in the European Federation of National Associations of Orthopaedics and Traumatology (EFORT) open review found, “In general, good results were demonstrated (in the thumb surgery), with improvements in (patient’s range of motion), pain scores and strength. Failure rates ranged from 2.6% to 19.9% depending upon the implant studied. Comparative studies demonstrated promising results for replacement when compared to resection arthroplasty, with modest improvements in (patient’s range of motion) but at a cost of increased rates of complications. . . Failure, in terms of loosening and dislocation, remains a concern. . . ”

Four women who had Trapeziometacarpal joint replacement – their thumbs did not return to a more natural range of motion

When we discuss surgery, it is always best to listen to the surgeons and the challenges they are facing in providing joint replacement surgery.

An April 2018 study from a team of Belgium doctors that appeared in the American Journal of Hand Surgery (7) questioned whether or not a thumb joint replacement surgery provides a good benefit for the patient. Here are the highlights of that study.

  • The study begins with four female patients who have stage III osteoarthritis at the Trapeziometacarpal (the base of the thumb). The four female patients had a significant loss of range of motion in their thumbs. This led to a recommendation for TMC (Trapeziometacarpal) joint replacement surgery.

So what happened after the surgery? How was the range of motion in the replaced thumbs?

  • To quote the research: “The study highlights that advanced Trapeziometacarpal osteoarthritis mainly restricts the MC1 (first metacarpal bone or the metacarpal bone of the thumb) mobility. We also showed that, whereas total joint arthroplasty (thumb replacement) is able to restore thumb function, it cannot fully replicate the kinematics of the healthy Trapeziometacarpal joint.”

So after thumb replacement, the thumb does not return to a more natural range of motion. This may not be an important factor for many people, especially people who have deformities from rheumatoid arthritis (see below), but it is certainly an important factor for people who rely on their hands for work or if they are an artisan. Tell a pianist or a carpenter that his/her thumbs won’t move that well after surgery. See how fast they look for an alternative to their thumb arthritis.

Pain on load and weakness remains to some extent 1 year after surgery for trapeziometacarpal joint arthritis

In a February 2020 study from Sweden, doctors reporting in the journal BioMed Central Musculoskeletal Disorders (8) wrote:

  • “One year postoperatively, mean pain at rest was reduced from 50 to 12 of maximum 100. However, pain on load and weakness had not abated to the same extent (mean 30 and 34 of 100, respectively). The mean improvement in Passive Range of Motion (PROM) did not differ between age groups or gender. The result was similar after trapeziectomy with ligament reconstruction and tendon interposition (86% of the patients) and simple trapeziectomy but few patients were operated on with the latter method. Pain on load and weakness remains to some extent 1 year after surgery for trapeziometacarpal joint arthritis. “

Thumb osteoarthritis is caused by joint instability due to ligaments that are weakened or damaged by overuse or by a traumatic injury. To restore a more natural movement to the thumb joint, you have to examine and explore the repair of the thumb’s ligaments.

To restore a more natural movement to the thumb joint, you have to examine and explore the repair of the thumb’s ligaments. Repairing the thumb ligaments should be the main objective of treatment. We are going to discuss this below.

Research: Thumb osteoarthritis is caused by joint instability due to ligaments that are weakened or damaged by overuse or by a traumatic injury. (9)

This is according to researchers from Indiana University School of Medicine, Tufts University School of Medicine, University of Bristol, Bristol, and the Dutch university researchers who made this statement in their paper: “Yet more evidence that osteoarthritis is not a cartilage disease,” published in the British Medical Journal.

Trapeziometacarpal joint surgery causes wrist problems and wrist instability

In May 2020, surgeons at the Imperial College London writing in The Journal of Hand Surgery (10)  explored the effects of surgical treatments for trapeziometacarpal osteoarthritis on wrist biomechanics. What they found was that “wrist biomechanics were significantly altered following trapeziectomy. . . Trapeziectomy, as a standalone procedure in the treatment of trapeziometacarpal osteoarthritis, may result in the formation of a potentially unfilled trapezial gap, leading to higher wrist muscle forces. This biomechanical alteration could be associated with clinically important outcomes, such as pain and/or joint instability.”

What do weakened ligaments in the thumb do? Cause pain, loss of motion, loss of grip strength, and cause osteoarthritis. “So I have no grip strength because of the thumb ligaments?”


Why occupational or physical therapy was only a little help and only delayed thumb surgery.

A team of researchers from Norway published their findings on the benefit or lack of benefits of occupational therapy in the November 2019 issue of Rheumatic & Musculoskeletal Diseases Open. (11)

The goal of the study was to determine “whether occupational therapy, provided in the period between referral and surgical consultation, might delay or reduce the need for surgery in thumb carpometacarpal joint osteoarthritis and to explore predictors for carpometacarpal joint surgery.”

The patients they looked at:

  • 180 patients average age of 63 years old
  • 142 (79%) were women.
  • Of the 180 patients, 22 (24%) patients in the occupational therapy group, and 29 (32%) in the control group, underwent surgery before a 24-month follow-up.

These are not robust results.

The conclusion of the research:

“In conclusion, we found a small non-significant tendency towards a delay and reduction in carpometacarpal joint surgery in patients that received occupational therapy, compared with a control group. Previous non-pharmacological treatment and motivation for surgery were significant predictors of surgery. These results may support the notion that patients with carpometacarpal joint osteoarthritis should be referred to occupational therapy before surgery is considered.”

In this x-ray image the arrow points to severe osteoarthritis in the carpometacarpal joint. This is evidenced by the lack of cartilage at the joint. Thumb arthritis often involves inflammation.
In this x-ray image, the arrow points to severe osteoarthritis in the carpometacarpal joint. This is evidenced by the lack of cartilage at the joint. Thumb arthritis often involves inflammation.

In the above study, physical or occupational therapy was seen as helpful for some, not all, and many go on to surgery anyway. Why?

Patients are often very confused as to why a physical therapy program did not help their thumb and hand pain as much as they thought it would. This is very typical of the patients we see. They have been in physical therapy for months and nothing seems to have improved. How can this be? Many of these patients have been listening and reading about “great exercises” to strengthen their thumb. These people have been told that exercise will lead to greater pain relief and an increase in mobility. So why is it not working? And because it is not working, are you now equally concerned you are going to be escalated to a surgical candidate, or have your pain management prescriptions increased in strength?

Loss of strength, muscle power, and range of motion are clear indicators of impending thumb surgery. In patients with degenerative joint disease, where connective tissue such as the ligaments and tendons that attach bone to bone and muscle to bone are damaged. It is very difficult to derive benefits from strength training where resistance is needed because the ligaments and tendons that help provide that resistance are weak.

  • Ligaments hold bone to bone. If they are weak the bone floats out of position.
  • If the bones are floating out of position, they are causing the tendons to stretch and become weak. The tendon attachments that hold the muscle to the bone are compromised, and strength is lost.

Weak Ligaments in the thumb anatomy explain why cartilage breaks down and why 

Thumb arthritis often involves inflammation of the basal joint (the base of the thumb), which is the joint that allows the thumb to swivel and pivot, it is also called the thumb carpometacarpal (CMC) joint or trapeziometacarpal (TMC) joint (as mentioned above), because the trapezium bone joins the metacarpal bone of the thumb.

The basal and metacarpophalangeal (MCP) (the knuckle joint of the thumb), are usually the first areas where the pain is experienced.

  • The thumb ligament that joins the wrist to the base of the thumb is called the radial collateral ligament, the same name as the ligament inside the elbow. The thumb ligament that joins the base of the thumb (the first metacarpal) to the succeeding joint (proximal phalanx) is the collateral ligament.
  • If the ligaments in these joints are not strengthened, arthritis will eventually occur or worsen.
    • Ligament damage and injury in the thumb can create a cascade of arthritic effects. For example, the cartilage that cushions the joints begins to deteriorate. Then swelling and pain develop as the bones rub against each other. The ligaments eventually weaken further as they try to overcompensate for the lack of cartilage. The synovial tissue that lines the joint capsules may also become inflamed, leading to fluid accumulation in the joint. Pain, swelling, and decreased mobility are the results, as well as a recommendation for surgery.

Surgery for osteoarthritis of the thumb often includes ligament reconstruction with a tendon and bone removal

Much of the research and attention on surgery for thumb osteoarthritis centers around the removal of the trapezium bone at the base of the thumb. The surgery is called a trapeziectomy.

The trapeziectomy can be performed with variations of the technique. First is the removal of the bone. Some procedures will include a ligament reconstruction to strengthen the compromised anatomy and fill the void left with a forearm tendon. For patients with thumb arthritis being recommended for surgery, the term interpositional arthroplasty or commonly referred to as trapeziectomy with LRTI would likely be recommended as a surgical choice.

In addition to the research above, research from the University of Massachusetts Medical School examined various surgical procedures for thumb osteoarthritis. Here are their findings published in the medical journal Hand. (12)

  • In the treatment of basal joint arthritis of the thumb, recent studies suggest equal outcomes with regard to long-term pain, mobility, and strength, in patients undergoing either trapeziectomy alone or trapeziectomy with ligament reconstruction and tendon interposition (LRTI).
  • A retrospective chart review of 5 surgeons at a single institution performing CMC (wrist joint) arthroplasties from November 2006 to November 2012. A total of 200 thumbs in 179 patients underwent simple trapeziectomy with or without LRTI and with or without Kirschner wire stabilization (wires instead of tendons to stabilize the void), or ligament reconstruction.
  • Seventy hands had a postoperative complication. Ten of these complications were considered major, defined as requiring antibiotics, reoperation, or other aggressive interventions.
  • The risk of total complications was significantly greater in patients undergoing either trapeziectomy with LRTI or ligament reconstruction in comparison with trapeziectomy with K-wire stabilization. These results suggest an advantage of simple trapeziectomy.

A bone spur and a lengthened ligament

Loose or lax ligaments and bone spurs are the common dominant theme in degenerative joint disease. When the ligaments are loose, the bones wander, and abnormal wear and tear in the joint will cause the formation of bone spurs. As we saw in the conservative care study above. The more subluxation and the more instability. The less conservative care options include splints work.

An August 2021 study (13) from doctors at the Department of Trauma and Orthopaedics, King’s College Hospital, London, and published in the Journal of Wrist Surgery examined problems of the thumb carpometacarpal joint with a focus on the failure of conservative care and the thumb ligaments. Here is what they wrote:

“The surrounding ligamentous structures (of the thumb carpometacarpal joint) are complex and important to maintain thumb carpometacarpal joint stability. Objectives The aim of this study was to review the normal and arthritic anatomy of the thumb carpometacarpal joint, focusing on morphology (the joint structure is broken and becoming abnormal) and position of osteophytes (bone spurs) and the gap between metacarpal bases, and the effect of these on intermetacarpal ligament integrity.”

The researchers of this study are exploring ways to avoid surgical failure. One way suggested is to make sure the joint is stable by examining damage and instituting repair of the ligaments.

The researchers continue: “(The intermetacarpal ligament) may be the sole ligament suspending the first metacarpal following trapeziectomy and could determine the need for further stabilization during surgery, avoiding potential future failures.”

The intermetacarpal distance in trapeziectomy patients

A total of 55 patients, 30 normal controls, and 25 arthritic patients who had Trapeziectomy were identified and studied. The most common anatomic position for osteophytes was the intermetacarpal ulnar aspect of the trapezium (a bone spur at the base of the thumb at the wrist). The intermetacarpal distance increased by an average of 2.1 mm in the presence of the arthritic process. (The thumb joint had become unstable and the bones of the joint began to wander and cause more problems. Bone spurs were forming to try to “bridge the gap” and keep the thumb in place.”

The researchers concluded: “The findings point to an increase in the intermetacarpal distance, and hence lengthening of the ligament with potential damage, possibly secondary to osteophyte formation and wear. Further prospective research is required to determine whether using preoperative CT scanning to define osteophyte position and measure the intermetacarpal distance would predict probable damage to the ligament, hence providing an indication for stabilization and reconstruction in trapeziectomy surgery.”

In other words, the intermetacarpal ligament should be examined before surgery to offer a better chance to understand post-surgical problems.

Thumb medicine can sometimes be very amazing in its desire to do the most complicated and invasive things


Joint replacement can be considered in selected patients who require greater strength and range of motion, although it has been associated with a higher complication rate.

Doctors at the Hand Surgery Unit, Department of Orthopedic Surgery, University Hospital, in Granada, Spain, wrote in the medical journal Orthopedics(14)

  • Numerous surgical procedures have been described to treat trapeziometacarpal osteoarthritis, but no approach is currently considered superior.
  • Good long-term outcomes have been reported with multiple procedures.
  • No studies have been published comparing outcomes of the Arpe joint replacement with those of ligament reconstruction and tendon interposition (LRTI).
  • Pain relief and functional improvement were similar between groups.
  • Pinch strength and range of motion were superior in the joint replacement group.
  • Metacarpophalangeal hyperextension appeared to be prevented in the joint replacement group but increased over the follow-up period in the ligament reconstruction group.
  • However, the complication rate was higher in the joint replacement group.
  • Conclusion: Joint replacement can be considered in selected patients who require greater strength and range of motion, although it has been associated with a higher complication rate.

Trapeziectomy with or without ligament reconstruction is still considered the gold standard, but the challenges associated with treating its complications limit its indications.

Despite this and other evidence, doctors from the University of Michigan wrote in the journal Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery(15) “With a consistent rise in health care spending, adherence to an evidence-based approach in medicine is more important than ever. Most surgeons continue to perform trapeziectomy with ligament reconstruction and tendon interposition, the most expensive surgical option.”

French doctors gave a thorough analysis of the challenges of surgical repair of trapeziometacarpal osteoarthritis. Writing in the journal Hand Surgery and Rehabilitation, (16) they write:

  • The demand for surgical treatment for Trapeziometacarpal osteoarthritis is growing and the patients are becoming younger, adding to the challenge.
  • Surgery can only be proposed after the failure of well-conducted conservative treatment and requires a complete X-ray assessment.
  • In the early stages, conservative surgery measures can be used to stabilize the joint or realign it in cases of dysplasia, but in most cases, patients are seen with more advanced arthritis and a joint replacement must be considered.
  • The ideal arthroplasty technique has yet to be defined. Although many studies have been published on this topic, they do not help define the treatment indications.
  • Trapeziectomy with or without ligament reconstruction is still considered the gold standard, but the challenges associated with treating its complications limit its indications.

Medicine can sometimes be very amazing in its desire to do the most complicated and invasive things. Like performing two surgeries when one would have offered similar results with less trauma to the patient.

Here is a situation where an alternative surgical option is given. It failed. Now the doctors had to go back to the original choice of surgery to fix the alternative surgery.

Another team of French doctors gave a thorough analysis of the challenges of Total trapeziometacarpal joint replacement. Also writing in the journal Hand Surgery and Rehabilitation, (17) they write:

  • Total trapeziometacarpal joint replacement is increasingly being performed for the treatment of basal joint arthritis.
  • However, complications such as instability or loosening are also frequent with TMC ball-and-socket joint replacement.
  • Management of these complications lacks consensus.

This study examined the results of 12 cases of failed TMC joint replacement that were treated by trapeziectomy with ligament reconstruction and tendon interposition (LRTI) arthroplasty. The study found that Trapeziectomy with LRTI after TMC joint replacement appears to be an attractive salvage procedure.

Simply doctors had to go back to a surgery that could have been the first choice procedure, to repair the damage of an alternative choice surgery. Two surgeries when one would have offered similar results with less trauma to the patient.

Injections for thumb osteoarthritis

This is a brief introductory video on injections for thumb osteoarthritis that can help rebuild the soft tissue of the thumb and alleviate problems of degenerative arthritis and possibly help patients avoid thumb joint surgery.  The video is presented by Danielle R. Steilen-Matias, MMS, PA-C. Caring Medical Florida.

At 1:10 of the video 

  • When patients come to our office with thumb pain and arthritis at the base of the thumb we often will see that when we stress the thumb by tugging at it under ultrasound imaging, the extent of thumb ligament laxity can be revealed and the bones in the thumb are moving more than they should. This is thumb instability, which is too much movement, causing wear and tear degenerative arthritis in the thumb joints.

Brief description of Prolotherapy

At 1:30 of the video.

  • We have had great success in treating thumb instability and thumb arthritis with Prolotherapy injections. These injections are a dextrose solution that we inject into these injured joints. Sometimes we add your blood platelets through Platelet Plasma injections. (These treatments are demonstrated below). This is considered a more aggressive way to regenerate injured tissue.
  • In cases of basal joint arthritis where patients have been told that they are bone-on-bone, Prolotherapy with PRP can be a very effective treatment option to help these patients avoid surgery and be able to live their life without pain.

Ultrasound showing joint instability in a patient with osteoarthritic fingers and thumb

In this video Ross Hauser, MD demonstrates an ultrasound examination showing joint instability in her thumb. (0:42) the ultrasound image and explanation by Dr. Hauser.

Non-surgical options for thumb arthritis: The research on Prolotherapy

Comparing Prolotherapy to cortisone in the first carpometacarpal joint

A study published in the Journal of Orthopaedic Science (18) compared dextrose Prolotherapy against corticosteroid local injection for the treatment of osteoarthritis in the first carpometacarpal joint. This was a double-blind randomized clinical trial.

These are the summary learning points:

  • Sixty patients (average age about 64 years old) with osteoarthritis of the first carpometacarpal joint were assigned equally to two groups.
    • For the corticosteroid group, after 2 monthly saline placebo injections, a single dose of 40 mg methylprednisolone acetate (0.5 ml) mixed with 0.5 ml of 2% lidocaine was injected.
    • For the dextrose prolotherapy group, 0.5 ml of 20% dextrose was mixed with 0.5 ml of 2% lidocaine and the injection was repeated monthly for 3 months.
    • Pain intensity, hand function, and the strength of lateral pinch grip were measured at the baseline and at 1, 2, and 6 months after the treatment.
  • Using a standard visual analog scale (VAS) to assess outcomes, the results were:
    • The two groups were comparable at 2 months, but significantly different at 1 month, with better results for corticosteroid, and at 6 months with an apparently more favorable outcome for Prolotherapy.
    • After 6 months of treatment, both dextrose Prolotherapy and corticosteroid injection increased functional levels, but dextrose Prolotherapy seemed to be more effective
  • Conclusion: “For the long term, dextrose Prolotherapy seems to be more advantageous, while the two treatments were comparable in the short term. Because of the satisfactory pain relief and restoring of function, we would prefer dextrose Prolotherapy for the treatment of patients with osteoarthritis.”
The black dots in this image represent the places that Prolotherapy injections will be given during this treatment session.
The black dots in this image represent the places where Prolotherapy injections will be given during this treatment session.

Making your thumb function better and move naturally without surgery is certainly an appealing option. Can this be realistically done? In the many patients that we have seen over the years, Prolotherapy injection treatments into the thumb have provided excellent results. Will this treatment work for everyone? The answer is no. Will it work for you? That is something that is discussed after a physical examination of the thumb and a discussion with the patient about the goals of their treatment.

The goal of the Prolotherapy treatment is to bring stability to the thumb. Degenerative wear and tear arthritis occur because of hypermobility/loose ligaments. In other words, the bones of your thumbs are moving around too much. This hypermobility is causing thumb joint erosion due to unnatural wear patterns in the joint. To compensate and hold your thumb together as best as possible, your body starts to grow bone (bone spurs) in the joint. Prolotherapy injections would be best given in the earlier stages of the disease before bone spur formation became a problem.

In 2000, K. Dean Reeves, MD lead a study published in the  Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine (19). These were the findings of this research on Prolotherapy for finger and thumb degenerative disease:

The objective of the study was to determine the clinical benefit of dextrose Prolotherapy (injection of growth factors or growth factor stimulators) in osteoarthritic finger joints.

The study participants were selected based on:

  • Six months of pain history in each joint was studied as well as one of the following:
    • grade 2 or 3 osteophyte (bone spur/overgrowth)
    • grade 2 or 3 joint narrowing (loss of joint space), or
    • grade 1 osteophyte plus grade 1 joint narrowing.
  • Distal interphalangeal (DIP) – the uppermost finger joints
  • Proximal interphalangeal (PIP), the second finger joints, and trapeziometacarpal (thumb CMC) joints were eligible. Thirteen patients (with seventy-four symptomatic osteoarthritic joints) received active treatment, and fourteen patients (with seventy-six symptomatic osteoarthritic joints) served as controls.

The findings: “Dextrose Prolotherapy was clinically effective and safe in the treatment of pain with joint movement and range limitation in osteoarthritic finger joints.”

In our research published by Caring Medical in the Journal of Prolotherapy, (20we were able to document the beneficial use of Prolotherapy Injections. Prolotherapy was administered to 13 patients suffering from basal thumb arthritis in 17 thumbs. Here are our highlights:

  • Considered a conservative treatment in comparison to surgery, Prolotherapy is a simple procedure, in which solutions of dextrose are injected into the afflicted area.
  • Sessions occur over a period of time. The number of injections administered depends on the individual’s progress or failure to progress. A series of injections over three to six months was shown to reduce pain, improve function, and, thereby, improve the quality of life for the patients in this study.
    • Patients typically need three to six treatments to achieve the best outcome, scheduled approximately four weeks apart.
    • The procedure takes a few minutes.
    • A patient could expect to receive 10-15 injections per session for basal thumb arthritis.
    • Patients usually report mild discomfort in the injected area that may last 24-48 hours after treatment.
    • Normal activities can be resumed as soon as 24 hours.

Prolotherapy enables TMC joint arthritis sufferers to avoid surgery and its possible adverse effects. The substantial advantages and minimal drawbacks (e.g., aversion to needles), as well as the reduced risks and increased rewards of Prolotherapy over conventional treatments, suggest that this option for the second most common joint arthritis—that of the thumb—should be considered by doctors and patients.

Demonstration of Prolotherapy treatment for the thumb

This image demonstrates the Prolotherapy injection treatment to the thumb and the carpometacarpal joint. The goal of the treatment is to strenegthen and tighten the ligaments of the hand and bring the bones back towards a more natural alignment. This will reduce or alleviate pain and restore better function. 
This image demonstrates the Prolotherapy injection treatment to the thumb and the carpometacarpal joint. The goal of the treatment is to strengthen and tighten the ligaments of the hand and bring the bones back towards a more natural alignment. This will reduce or alleviate pain and restore better function. 

The treatment starts at 1:15 of the video: Ross Hauser, MD comments, and narrates:

  • (1:15) Treatment begins. This patient has thumb, hand, and finger pain with loss of function
  • (2:00) Narration summary and thumb injections: When a patient comes in with these problems we always start on the thumb because that is where we often find the most degenerative problems in hand pain.
  • (2:15 – 3:00) Injections at the base of the thumb and the thumb’s metacarpal and interphalangeal joints.

Thumb Joint boutonniere deformity

Thumb Joint boutonniere deformityAlso presented in the Journal of Prolotherapy, (21) our research and clinical team documented a case of a 57-year-old female afflicted with rheumatoid arthritis who received treatment for a 35-degree interphalangeal (IP) thumb joint deviation.

The thumb deviation clinically described as a boutonniere deformity was treated with a combination of Prolotherapy and splinting. She wore a custom three-point splint for six weeks and received three separate Prolotherapy treatments within that six-week period. After treatment, the deviation decreased from 35 degrees to 10 degrees, and her thumb pain decreased from 7 to 1 on a pain scale of 10 as the highest level.

Platelet Rich Plasma (PRP)

Many people who are exploring non-surgical options for their thumb osteoarthritis may have come upon research surrounding the use of Platelet Rich Plasma (PRP).

In basic terms, PRP involves the application of concentrated platelets (harvested from your own blood), which release growth factors to stimulate recovery in non-healing injuries. These growth factors, such as platelet-derived growth factor, transforming growth factor, and others, proliferate fibroblasts which means they spark the production of new connective tissue and cartilage. Specifically, PRP enhances the fibroblastic events involved in tissue healing including chemotaxis (the chemical attraction of repair cells to the site of injury, proliferation of cells, proteosynthesis (create of proteins), reparation, extra-cellular matrix deposition (this is a subject all in of itself, and the remodeling of tissues. The bottom line here is that PRP helps the healing process

The preparation of therapeutic doses of growth factors consists of an autologous blood collection (blood from the patient), plasma separation (blood is centrifuged), and application of the plasma rich in growth factors (injecting the plasma into the area.) In other words, PRP is done just like any other Prolotherapy treatment, except the solution used for injection is plasma enriched with growth factors from your own blood.

We are going to explore the research on PRP first and then discuss the combined use of PRP and Prolotherapy.

The professional pianist returns to the piano

An October 2019 case review was written up in the journal Rheumatology International, (22) Here university doctors in Spain described a case of Platelet-rich plasma for thumb carpometacarpal joint osteoarthritis in a professional pianist. The hope of the researchers was: “Presenting this case, our aim is to draw the attention of healthcare providers dealing with thumb carpometacarpal joint osteoarthritis to PRP as a safe, beneficial therapy for this condition which needs further assessment in randomized controlled trials.”

Here is what they reported:

  • “A 59-year-old male professional pianist presented with the chronic, mild onset of right thumb base pain involving a progressive lack of pinch strength in his right hand, and severe difficulties with playing. Three PRP injections were administered to the thumb carpometacarpal joint on a 1-week interval regime.
  • Clinical outcomes were assessed by using the visual analog scale (VAS) for pain, grip, and pinch strength and the Quick-DASH Questionnaire.
  • The functional outcome was excellent according to the patient’s capability with daily living activities and specific playing demands.
  • At 12 months follow-up, no recurrences or complications were identified, with the musician returning to his previous level of performance 2 weeks before the end of this period.
  • Patient self-reported satisfaction was high and he reported to return to his routine piano activity with no limitations.”

Let’s point out that this was a case to illustrate what Platelet Rich Plasma could do for one professional musician and to shed light on the potential of the treatment. The treatment while beneficial to many, may not help everyone.

PRP vs cortisone injections

A January 2021 study in the medical journal Cartilage (23), by a team of researchers from Greece and the United Kingdom, published their clinic observation in the use of PRP vs. Cortisone ion in the treatment of thumb osteoarthritis

  • This research centered on the trapeziometacarpal joint and carpometacarpal joint of the thumb.
  • Thirty-three patients with grades: I-III osteoarthritis. Divided into two groups
    • Group A – (16 patients) received 2 ultrasound-guided PRP injections
    • Group B patients (17 patients) received 2 ultrasound-guided intra-articular methylprednisolone and lidocaine injections at a 2-week interval.
    • After 12 months of follow-up, the PRP treatment has yielded significantly better results in comparison with the corticosteroids, in terms of pain, function, and patient’s satisfaction.

A December 2022 from the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom published in the journal Osteoarthritis and cartilage (28) investigated the effects of recurrent cortisone injections at three months and beyond in patients treated for knee osteoarthritis or thumb  (trapeziometacarpal) osteoarthritis. Patients received between two and eight injections. They were also compared to patients receiving hyaluronic acid, platelet-rich plasma, or placebo. These are the findings:

  • Recurrent recurrent cortisone injections demonstrated no benefits in pain or function over placebo at 12-24 months.
  • Recurrent recurrent cortisone injections results were not as good for symptom relief compared with other injectables (including placebo) at 3 months and beyond. Other injectables (hyaluronic acid, platelet-rich plasma) often yielded greater improvements in pain and function up to 24 months post-injection.

Autologous fat injections and Platelet-Rich Plasma injections for carpometacarpal arthritis of the thumb

A January 2023 paper in the journal Plastic and reconstructive surgery (27) from the University of Graz in Austria compared autologous fat injections and Platelet-Rich Plasma injections for carpometacarpal arthritis of the thumb. Injections of autologous fat is seen of patching holes in cartilage by transfer your fat into an osteoarthritic joint. The researchers write: “For the treatment of carpometacarpal arthritis of the thumb, various therapies are used. Infiltration therapy with autologous substances such as platelet-rich plasma and autologous fat have recently gained increasing attention because of beneficial pain-reducing effects in arthritis and the associated regenerative potential.” In this review study, the researchers examined previously published studies and suggested that both autologous fat injections and Platelet-Rich Plasma Injections “achieved a good and long-lasting pain reduction, which may also be accompanied by corresponding improvement in hand function. Autologous substances appear to be more effective than corticoid (injections). They also found autologous fat injections seems to be particularly promising in more advanced stages of carpometacarpal arthritis of the thumb.”

The combined use of PRP and Prolotherapy

When a patient presents a more advanced case of osteoarthritis we may suggest a more aggressive treatment including the PRP preparation. Why? The PRP has been shown in many studies, including the one we just cited to be more effective in cartilage degeneration. More so even than the simple dextrose Prolotherapy injections. In our clinic, based on over 27 years of experience in treating patients with thumb osteoarthritis, we have found that injecting PRP to attack the cartilage breakdown and injecting Prolotherapy to tackle the instability of the joint by addressing and strengthening weakened ligaments provide the patients with superior results. In the right patient, PRP, and Prolotherapy as a combined treatment would be favored.

Stem Cell Therapy for thumb osteoarthritis

Another more aggressive treatment we may employ is Stem Cell Prolotherapy. This combined treatment of stem cells and Prolotherapy presents the same clinical benefits as PRP Prolotherapy except we are using, bone marrow aspirate concentration or bone marrow-derived stem cells. We want to make it clear that we perform stem cell therapy on very few patients. Why? Because we can usually achieve the patient’s goal of treatment with simpler procedures. Bone marrow stem cell therapy is usually reserved for the most advanced cases.

Stem cell therapy in an injection of your own harvested stem cells. Stem cell therapy is typically utilized when we need to “patch” holes in cartilage and stimulate the bone. We explore this option in patients when there is more advanced osteoarthritis and a recommendation for a joint replacement has been made or suggested.

Our published research in the journal Clinical Medicine Insights. Arthritis and Musculoskeletal Disorders (24) demonstrates and documents clinical results in patients receiving bone marrow-derived stem cells and dextrose Prolotherapy.

Bone marrow aspirate concentrate

Doctors at the University of Bordeaux in France published a November 2021 paper in the journal Hand Surgery & Rehabilitation (25) that evaluated the effect of bone marrow aspirate concentrate (bone marrow stem cells) in the treatment of osteoarthritis in the first carpometacarpal joint. In total, 27 arthritic thumbs were treated.

Using the Dell osteoarthritis grading system to assess the severity of the patient’s thumb osteoarthritis from Stage I to Stage IV (worst), the patients seen were broken down this way:

  • two patients who had 2 stage I osteoarthritis of the thumb,
  • 11 patients who had 2 stages II osteoarthritis of the thumb,
  • 13 patients who had 2 stages III osteoarthritis of the thumb,
  • and 1 patient who had stage IV osteoarthritis of the thumb.

Note: As we noted above, stage IV osteoarthritis is difficult to treat with regenerative medicine injections, especially if bone spurs have fused the joint and there is no range of motion or joint space.

Explanatory note: The researchers used the following scoring systems to determine the success or failure of treatment:

  • QuickDASH (A scoring system that helps assess disability and function. The score ranges from 0 which means no functional problems or disability and goes to 100 (highest level of disability or loss of function).
  • PRWE (Patient-Rated Wrist Evaluation) This is a wrist function disability scoring system. The score ranges from 0 which means no functional problems or disability and goes to 100 (highest level of disability or loss of function).

After treatment scoring:

  • Average QuickDASH disability score among patients before treatment 59 / 100. After treatments, the average score significantly dropped to 29 / 100.
  • Average  PRWE disability score among patients before treatment was 88 / 100. After treatments, the average score significantly dropped to 50 / 100
  • On a numerical pain score scale (0 = no pain 10 = severe pain), the average score among patients before treatment. After treatments, the average score significantly dropped to 4 / 10.
  • No postoperative complications were recorded.

The Bordeaux researchers noted: “This is the first article presenting the effect of intra-articular injection of bone marrow aspirate concentrate in the thumb first carpometacarpal joint and the results were encouraging. Many patients showed improved quality of life and pain relief. These injections appear to be an effective means of postponing surgery.”

Summary

In treating patients with thumb pain, we often see people who have pain all over their bodies. This is not, as research shows, a common factor that doctors look for. In August of 2023, researchers at the Schroeder Arthritis Institute, Krembil Research Institute, University Health Network, Canada, wrote in the journal Osteoarthritis and cartilage open (29) about the frequency of and impact of multi-joint pain and osteoarthritis in patients with thumb-base osteoarthritis.

The researchers noted that in osteoarthritis studies, the focus often is on an index (main)-joint while other affected joint sites are often overlooked. In this study of 145 patients, average age 62 years old, almost 3 out of 4 patients were women, the researchers found that on average, these people suffered from nearly four joints considered osteoarthritic or degenerative not including their thumb which is what they were seeking treatment for.

  • Ten percent reported only their hands as symptomatic;
  • 30% reported 2-3 other symptomatic sites, and
  • 49% reported 4 or more joints as causing them pain.

The researchers found that “a higher symptomatic non-hand joint site count was associated with worse (thumb treatment outcome) scores for all patient-reported outcomes and grip strength. The researchers concluded: “In (our study group), nearly 80% of patients had 2 or more symptomatic non-hand joint sites. These symptoms were associated with worse thumb- and hand-specific outcomes, suggesting a need for awareness of whole body osteoarthritis burden. . . ”

Prolotherapy, PRP, and bone marrow aspirate can be effective treatments for the base of thumb sprains, injuries and osteoarthritis because these treatments can get to the root cause of chronic thumb pain: joint instability. These treatments can be simultaneously given over many joints in a single office visit.

Research is produced every year confirming that the osteoarthritic process begins with ligament pathology, causing increased pressure on the articular cartilage because of abnormal and excessive motion. This is true for the thumb basal joint as well. Most people wait too long before seeking appropriate care. Pain in the base of the thumb means tissues are being damaged. They need repair, strengthening, and healing. Prolotherapy inside the joint and around the stabilizing ligaments causes these structures to heal. Many patients’ thumb pain resolves to a 0 or 1 level of pain. Sometimes, due to lifestyle factors such as smartphone syndrome, it is impossible to achieve a zero level of pain.

If you have a question about Thumb Osteoarthritis Surgery Alternatives, get help and information from our Caring Medical staff

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This page was updated January 4, 2022

 

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