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Swollen Thumb

Swollen thumbs may not seem to be a very scary symptom, however, a person suffering from a swollen thumb can attest to how truly bothersome and painful this condition may be. Hands and fingers are parts of our anatomy that we tend to take for granted. We never really appreciate how much we do with our hands until there is something wrong with them and we can’t use them for their intended purposes.

There are many symptoms of a swollen thumb besides the obvious enlargement of the thumb. Pain is the most often associated symptom. However, the thumb may also have tingling sensations, or lack any feeling at all. The thumb may show discoloration by either being red and flushed or have a white waxy appearance.

Picture of swollen thumb

A swollen thumb is a condition that can affect all age groups. However, the age of the person affected may give clues to what is causing the swelling.

Causes of Swollen Thumb

A swollen thumb may be a condition that is localized in the metacarpal region of the hand or it could be a symptom of an underlying problem that is happening in other places of the body. The following are possible causes of swollen thumb.

Third Spacing and Edema

Swollen thumb and edema

Edema is the medical term typically used to describe swelling. Edema is a symptom and not a disease itself. It generally is a sign of something going on with the body. Edema can be localised or can occur all throughout the body.

Edema is sometimes caused by third spacing. Third spacing is when fluid that is usually contained in intracellular or intervascular areas begin to seep out and collects in the interstitial or extracellular areas.


Arthritis is a term that is used to describe diseases that can affect joints and other parts of the human body. There are many different kinds of arthritis including degenerative arthritis, when the tissues of a joint begin to break down, inflammatory arthritis, where for one reason or another the body’s immune system attacks its own tissues, and metabolic arthritis, when the body cannot rid itself of uric acid.

Most common symptoms of arthritis include pain, swelling and redness which may present itself in one area, such as the thumb. Arthritis, though may also affect multiple places in the body including the heart.


Hangnail infection causing thumb swelling

A hangnail is a piece of dried skin that can present itself on the perimeter of a nail bed. Hangnails while painful can also cause redness, swelling and infection. The most common cause of hangnails, as well as the most common cause for swollen thumb, is biting of the finger nails. Biting finger nails can lead to abnormal growth of the nail and also exposes the nail and finger to thousands of different bacteria that live in our mouths. Biting the nails also leaves them susceptible to fungal infections.

Hangnails are one of those things that begin as a minor annoyance but if the right conditions exist, infection can occur and spread through the nail into the skin of the finger and sometimes even the finger bones.


Picture of Thumb Gout

A very close relative of arthritis pain is gout pain. Gout is caused by uric acid that for one reason or another fails to be eliminated from the body. This uric acid forms crystals and these crystals then gather in areas of the body. The most common areas that these crystal structure congregate are the joints.

Along with medication, gout can be treated with changes in your diet. Organ meats that have high levels of purines may cause excess uric acid in the blood. Seafood such as mussels, sardines, and trout also contain high amounts of purines. Studies have shown that cherry juice in particular is helpful in treating gout.


Joints in our body contain fluid filled sacs called bursae. These sacs act as cushioning that absorb the shock upon our joints. Over time, if these bursae are over used or if an underlying condition is present these sacs become inflamed. Inflamed bursae are known as bursitis. Bursitis is usually accompanied by swelling in the affected areas.


Infections of tissues, by bacteria or other causes, may cause inflammation of the tissue. Inflammation is the body’s response to an infection. Typically, the body is trying to literally burn out whatever may be causing the infection. However, if the tissue is inflamed over long periods of time, the tissue itself begins to be damaged.

Soft Tissue Trauma

Whether from an injury or overuse, damaged tissue will become inflamed and cause swelling of the tissue. Swelling may also be from broken blood vessels or a damaged bone. This is another very common cause of a swollen thumb.

Texting Thumb

Texting thumb also causes swollen thumb

A relatively new disorder that is brought about by the ever changing landscape of technology. Texting thumb is a condition that is brought about by the overuse of the thumbs and the awkward position that they are in when a person uses their phone to text. This may cause swelling in one or both of the thumbs.

Another symptom that may accompany too much phone time is known as the texter neck. This is caused by the neck being slouched forward while looking at a phone for hours at a time and may cause things like headaches and blurred vision.


GCT’s or Giant Cell Tumors, are tumors that are caused by abnormal growth of the cells in a tissue. Normally, GCT’s are found in other organs such as the heart or the lungs. However, in rare cases, GCT’s can form on bones. Most common bone GCT’s occur are the phalanges of the hand but in even rarer cases form on the metacarpals which would affect the thumb. This type of bone tumor most commonly affects people that are 20 years old or younger.

Treatments for Swollen Thumb

Treatments of any symptom depends greatly on the cause of it. However, with most cases of swelling, redness, and pain it is helpful to remember the mnemonic RICE.

  • – Rest: Rest the affected area.
  • – Ice: Apply Ice or a cold compress for no greater than 15 minutes multiple times a day.
  • – Compress: Wrap the affected area with something like an ACE wrap or any other bandaging material that can provide pressure. Caution: Be sure not to wrap the area to tight as you may cut off blood flow. Also, closely monitor the area continuously for adverse signs of compression such as compartment syndrome.
  • – Elevate: Keep the affected area elevated above the heart.

The RICE method can be an initial treatment for any type of swelling. This is most helpful if the cause is tissue trauma or inflammation.

Splinting the area may also help. Splints help keep affected areas protected and help the individual remember not to make any unwanted movements.

Pain Management of Swollen Thumb

One of the worse things about a swollen thumb can be the throbbing pain that may accompany it. Again, you must find the actual cause for the symptom to make the symptoms go away completely but some remedies can offer immediate, although temporary, relief.

  • NSAIDS and Analgesics: Non-steroidal antiinflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) can be used to help treat swelling and inflammation. Some common NSAIDs are Ibuprofen and Aspirin. Analgesics work on different pathways as NSAIDs but have the same effect. A common analgesic is Acetaminophen and CBD oil. NSAIDs and Analgesics are also used to treat fevers.
  • Alternating Temperatures: We have already discussed applying cold to the area, but alternating between hot and cold can also provide relief. Cold temperatures reduce inflammation and constrict blood vessels. This helps in eliminating “old” blood from the area to make room for new nutrient rich blood. Warm temperatures work just the opposite. Instead of constricting blood vessels, warm temperatures dilate vessels and increase blood flow. The mix of warm and cold compresses may aid greatly in recovery and relief.
  • Topical Oils and Ointments: There are many topical ointments that may be used to help alleviate pain. Ointments and oils that contain menthol, camphor, methyl salicylate and trolamine salicylate are known for their great ability to ease joint and arthritis pain.

Before performing any home remedies do your research and keep your personal medical history in mind. NSAIDs are well known to interact with medications such as blood thinners and medications for hypertension. Always consult your physician or pharmacist before taking a medication.

Swollen Thumb Prognosis

A swollen thumb can cause a lot of irritation in everyday life, it is important to determine the cause of it. Most of the time a physician will be able to determine the cause and begin a definitive treatment plan. With a good treatment plan the outlook for this condition is good.

Swollen Thumb
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