Have your thumbs sometimes shouted for attention when you go to grab the subway pole, grocery bag, tennis racquet, cast iron pot, smart phone, or after a particularly long day? You may be putting too much stress on your CMC (carpometacarpal, also called “basal“) joint, which can cause pain and inflammation. The thumb joint is extremely important for being so small. We need our thumbs to grip a tennis racquet or golf club, lift weights, do pushups, or even practice yoga. Follow these “rules of thumb” to protect yourself as you go about your day:
Leave your thumbs out of it! Use them less. Hold your smart phone or blackberry in your non-dominant hand and press the keys with your dominant index finger. Lift heavy or unwieldy objects with two hands rather than one. When using a key to open doors or padlocks, make a gentle fist and put the key between your index and middle fingers. Your fist will eliminate your need to use your thumb.
Pay attention to any pains. Ouch! What were you doing when you felt that pain or pinch in your thumb? Take a mental snapshot. Look at how you used your hand (how much force you used and what position your hand was in). Is there another way to manage the task?
Don’t let your workouts get you down. Try using handlebar grips while doing pushups and foam blocks for yoga positions; this will relieve the stress caused by putting your hands flat on the floor.
Use special tools to help you out around the house. In the kitchen, use grip pads for twisting off tight lids and jar poppers to loosen tops the first time you open them. Grippy, fat-handled peelers and lighter weight cookware also will help take the load off of your thumb.
In the bathroom, using an electric toothbrush and a bath mitt when you bathe will help ease the need to grasp. Ask your pharmacist for non-childproof containers that twist off easily for your prescriptions (if there are no children in your home and you can do so safely).
There are special tools that can help you out in the garden as well. New products are constantly coming out that make it easier to enjoy gardening without putting too much stress on your hands. You can also modify your current tools with bike handles or tennis grip tape.
Adapt. In short, it comes down to changing your behavior. Respect the pain, and resist the urge to do repetitious squeezing exercises that may hurt your hands. There are more ways to stay fit and continue doing everything you want and need to do! You and your thumbs can both be happy!
John Indalecio is an occupational therapist and certified hand therapist at the Hand Therapy Center at Hospital for Special Surgery.