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Get a Grip - Secrets to Relieving Thumb Pain

by Eric Winder, DC

 

Weak, painful thumbs can put a serious cramp in your lifestyle. Opening jars, writing and even driving a car are seemingly simple tasks that can become difficult and painful. Fortunately, several years ago I learned a little-known gem for healing thumb pain, and I have used it to help dozens of patients over the years.

In many previous articles, I have discussed how fascia restriction in one part of the body often causes pain somewhere else. The patterns of pain referral can be unusual or even unique to an individual. But one pattern that is consistent connects thumb pain to the fascia of the pectoral muscles of the chest. 

Time after time, I find that people with pain or arthritis at the base of their thumbs have chronic tension and restriction of the fascia (fibrous connective tissue) that covers these muscles. Properly and thoroughly releasing the restrictions can help to dramatically improve thumb pain and grip strength.

I first learned of this from a friend who had studied yoga therapy extensively in India. While I have been unable to find any reference to this useful therapeutic connection in any Western medical literature, the truth of it is undeniable. I have seen patient after patient regain their ability to use their thumbs for normal daily activities in all but the most severe cases of thumb pain or arthritis. 

While this knowledge applies to both men and women, in my practice I generally see more women suffering from thumb pain. In fact, research shows that women have thumb arthritis 10 times more frequently than men, so this comes as no surprise. A recent patient, whom I’ll refer to as Marjorie, is an excellent example.

While most women don’t develop thumb pain or arthritis until their 40’s or later, Marjorie’s problems began in her late 20’s. Her pain developed gradually over many months and affected both hands. It was reaching the point that she stopped doing several different types of exercises that involved the use of her hands. 

On examination, she had the typical sharp tenderness at the base joints of the thumbs. She was weak when extending or flexing her thumbs and could not hold her thumb and index fingers pinched together against resistance. Her posture gave an immediate clue to the underlying problem. When the pectoral fascia is tight, it pulls the shoulder blades forward, giving a rounded or slumped shoulder appearance. 

This was true in Marjorie’s case, and I confirmed the connection to her thumb pain with a simple test. I pulled back her shoulder blade while applying finger pressure to stretch the pectoral fascia. While holding this pressure, I tested her thumb strength with my other hand. There was an immediate improvement in thumb strength with an accompanying decrease in pain. 

How is it that thumb pain can be caused by restriction of the fascia at the front of the chest? The answer lies in how fascia works in the body. One of its most important functions is giving us position sense, or proprioception, which helps us to know where all the parts of our body are in space. The nerve endings in fascia that give us this sensation can give confused input where the fascia is abnormally restricted. 

This can cause muscle weakness or tightness, nearby or at distant parts of the body. In the case of restricted pectoral fascia, there is a strong tendency to cause weakness of the thumb muscles. This weakness, in turn, probably makes the thumb joint less stable and more prone to developing arthritis. 

The thumb pain was not Marjorie’s chief complaint, as often happens with my patients. She had actually come to my office for treatment of lower back and foot pain but mentioned the difficulties with her thumbs as well. Over the course of several treatments, I made sure that we treated the problems causing tension in the pectoral fascia, while also treating areas of fascia restriction related to her other complaints. 

She had noticeable improvement in her thumb pain with just two treatments, and by her fifth treatment, her thumb pain was 90% better. When treating thumb pain and arthritis, the amount of improvement will vary from person to person. However, even when there is advanced joint arthritis, there can still be significant improvement in the pain. This is because restoring strength through proper treatment can better stabilize the joint. A more stable joint will become less painful, even when there is arthritis. 

Thumb problems caused by restricted pectoral fascia do not happen immediately. Over time, shoulder muscle imbalances develop as well, as a result of the restrictions, and these also need to be addressed. My patients learn to perform specific stretches for certain tight muscles and strengthening exercises for other muscles that have weakened. Done properly, these stretches and exercises make an enormous difference in how thorough and lasting the improvement will be after fascia therapy has been completed. 

When treating many types of pain in the body, the fascia connections can be quite complicated. However, in the case of thumb pain, the majority of cases involve a simple connection with the fascia of the chest. Treatment is usually straightforward, and the success rate of treatment is high. There is some “homework” involved, but most patients find it worth the effort to bring relief and strength back to their aching thumbs.

 

You are invited to attend an evening program on December 19, where you can learn in-depth about fascia, why it is important, and how to solve fascia problems when they create pain or problems like thumb arthritis. Dr. Eric Winder will discuss case examples, provide a treatment demonstration and hold a Q&A session following the presentation. Attendees are invited to arrive at 6:45 p.m. for refreshments, and the program itself will take place from 7–8 p.m. This free event is located at 3131 S Tamiami Trail, #102, Sarasota. To RSVP, call 941-957-8390. Dr. Eric Winder has 21 years in practice, and focuses on relieving pain and restoring alignment and motion through fascia release therapies without forceful manipulation. For more information, visit GentleBay.com.   

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