Why does my thumb muscle hurt?
Great question! At Bendable Body we take a unique stance on the topic.
In short: your thumb hurts, because other (bigger) muscles don't work!
Whether its a tendon in your thumb or carpal tunnel radiating up into the thumb or gamer's thumb or smartphone thumb... or if you are feeling it in the thumb muscle itself or the thumb joint or if you have arthritis... in all of these situations we would ask that you don't focus on the thumb itself or thumb strengthening or even the hand or wrist. Doing any of that will give temporary relief but the problem will return because you will have missed the root cause.
According to Hand Care from the American Society of Surgery for the Hand:
"The thumb is involved in about 50% of all hand functions. When the thumb is painful or injured, it becomes very difficult to use the hand."
The most common causes of thumb pain are:
"Trigger thumb: The tendon that bends or flexes the thumb is called the flexor pollicis longus (FPL). If there is swelling or inflammation around the thumb tendon, it will not glide smoothly. Sometimes the tendon gets stuck in the thumb pulley, causing the thumb joint to click, catch, or lock. This is called a trigger thumb. The thumb can also become swollen, stiff, and very painful. Treatment includes rest, anti-inflammatory medications, splinting, and steroid injections. Most patients improve without surgery. If symptoms persist with treatment, trigger thumb release surgery is very effective and has low risks."
"Thumb Arthritis: The human thumb is unique. We can touch the tip of the thumb to the small finger — a function called opposition. Most animals do not have an “opposable” thumb. This gives us the ability to write, use a needle and thread, and use hand tools. The joint at the base of the thumb which allows opposition is called the carpometacarpal (CMC) joint. Normal, every day activities can cause wear and tear in the thumb CMC joint. When the joint wears out, it can become inflamed and painful. This process is called osteoarthritis or degenerative joint disease."
DeQuervain’s Tendonitis: The tendons in the wrist that lift the thumb up are prone to tendonitis. These tendons travel through a tight compartment on the thumb side of the wrist. If there is friction on the tendons, they can become inflamed and very painful. This is classic in young mothers, and is sometimes called mommy’s thumb. Treatment consists of splinting, anti-inflammatory medications, therapy, and steroid injections. DeQuervain’s release surgery is occasionally necessary to resolve this condition.
Carpal tunnel syndrome: When the nerve is pinched in the carpal tunnel, patients have numbness and tingling in the thumb, index, middle, and/or ring fingers. Initially symptoms come and go, and are often worse at night. Some patients feel electric shock sensations or burning pain in their thumbs. In severe cases, the thumb muscles can become weak and atrophied. Treatment for most patients includes wearing a wrist brace at night, stretching exercises, hand therapy and steroid injections. Carpal tunnel surgery is very effective for most patients if non-operative treatment is not successful or if nerve compression is severe.
Skiers Thumb: Trauma to the thumb is common. During a fall, most people land on an outstretched hand to brace themselves. Unfortunately the ligaments in the thumb can become injured in this way. The ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) of the thumb is vulnerable to tearing as the thumb is bent backwards and away from the hand. If this ligament does not heal properly, patients can have pain and weakness with pinch tasks. For most minor sprains of the thumb, temporary immobilization in a splint or cast is successful to allow healing. If the ulnar collateral ligament is fully torn, however, surgery is usually recommended to fix the injury. Hand therapy is often helpful during the recovery process to regain range of motion and strength.
What you may or may not have noticed, is that in all of these scenarios the treatments are localized in the thumb and hand. No matter what activity you do that causes pain in your thumb and no matter which of the above versions of thumb pain you have... if you want to know how to relieve thumb pain in a long lasting way, you must address the larger muscles in your arm - particularly in the shoulders and chest.
Why do we need to stretch the larger muscles in the arm to help the thumb?
It's very common to see pain and injury show up in joints. This happens over time because unhealthy fascia accumulates in muscles from repetitive movement, lack of movement or a direct blow or trauma. When muscles have an accumulation of unhealthy fascia, they don't work well. They lack both strength and flexibility. The two go hand in hand and if one isn't there the other isn't truly either. When this happens, some part of your body needs to pick up the slack for the lack of movement in your muscles. The areas that do this are your joints. They over work. Make excessive movement beyond what they are designed to do. Eventually wear and tear happens and pain and injury shows up. The thumb is a joint! It over works (gripping things, gardening, writing, typing, sewing, knitting, cooking, driving, playing sports... the list is long) when the muscles higher up in the shoulders and chests stop working.
In the following video we should you some stretches for the shoulders and chest that will have the biggest impact on your thumbs and give them relief. We also show you some stretches for the thumb itself. These are meant to be done in combination with the stretches for the larger muscles and if anything second to them. The key is focusing on the root cause and not the symptom!