Unique Procedure Aids the Fight against Thumb Arthritis

February 23, 2011

When medication and therapy fall short, a unique procedure is starting to take hold with doctors who are using tendons from the arm to mend thumb arthritis.

When medication and therapy fall short, a unique procedure is starting to take hold with doctors to treat thumb arthritis. They are using tendons from the arm to mend the thumb.

As any bipedal humanoid is aware, thumbs are necessary for a whole lot that we do on a day-to-day basis. The texting speed of all teenagers, for instance, would suffer greatly without them. The thumb, while it is an essential part of our modern day life, is not a part of the body that one usually associates with arthritis, but the fact remains that two-thirds of postmenopausal women will suffer from arthritis in their thumbs.

According to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, women are ten times more likely to develop arthritis of the thumb than men are.

“The majority of postmenopausal women who are Caucasian or Asian will likely get this arthritis,” said Amy Ladd, Stanford University School of Medicine doctor and surgeon.

Ladd is a surgeon who has used this unique procedure—removing a tendon from the forearm and placing it between the trapezium and CMC joint in the thumb—on piano enthusiast, Nancy McRay.

McRay recollects playing her first note. “My mother just put music in front of me and sat me in front of the piano,” said McRay.

The arthritis that developed in her thumb, however, made playing out of the question. The cartilage between her thumb joint and bone was becoming thinner, which was leading to the arthritis.

Ladd, a pianist herself, understood the crippling effects arthritis could have on a player. “I understand the demands of an octave span and playing precision work,” said Ladd.

Most of the time, what happens is the patient is placed on medication and therapy, and if this combination fails to treat the arthritis, doctors would turn to surgery and cut, fuse, or remove bones in the thumb.

Instead, Ladd "basically, creat[ed] some sort of natural pillow for that joint to rest upon" out of the tendon in her arm, said Ladd.

Now, thanks to the surgery, McRay can once more play the piano.

Ladd stated that she believes that the next step is to expand upon this idea of a “pillow” and to manufacture implants that can be surgically placed into the thumb.

While experts are not aware of the reason why post-menopausal women are more at risk for thumb arthritis, they do know that men and younger women can also get it, though this is much less common.