Medical – Thumb Osteoarthritis

If gripping your bike’s handlebars is causing pain in your thumb, it may be Osteoarthritis. Here, Suzie Bostock provides a few exercises that’ll help you manage the pain

One of the main causes of thumb pain is osteoarthritis (OA), and this tends to be in the base of the thumb. This happens when the cartilage within the basal thumb joint starts to deteriorate and is not as smooth as it once was. This is a particular issue for motorcyclists, as the thumb is generally wrapped around the grip for the whole ride and under varying levels of stress depending on the type of bike, grip size, duration of your ride etc.

When you have OA, you may experience swelling or stiffness in the base of your thumb, as well as pain and possible reduced strength, especially when your hand is wrapped around the grip, or you’re grasping tools to do some bike maintenance. If you’ve had a previous thumb injury, you’ll be more at risk of developing thumb OA.

There are a few exercises and other things you can do to aid normal range of movement and strength in the thumb, as well as to reduce pain from OA. Do not do any exercises that cause pain or other symptoms such as pins and needles, shooting pain or numbness. It’s best to slowly build up the exercises you do so that you don’t get pain.

Some discomfort while performing the movements is normal; however, this should subside within 30 minutes of exercising. If your pain is progressively worsening or not improving with basic exercises and adjustments, you should see your GP or a physiotherapist for professional assessment and more specific, personalised advice.

Basic Exercises

Exercise 1:

Isometric thumb abduction Place your hand on a table, palm down. Use your other hand to resist the movement of your thumb away from your index finger. Hold this for three seconds. The pressure used should not cause you pain. If it does, use less resistance and reduce the repetitions. Repeat up to 10 times.

Thumb-osteroarthitis (2)

Exercise 2:

Isometric thumb opening Rest your hand on its side on a table. Move your thumb away from your index finger so that it stays on the same level horizontally and apply a little pressure, so the thumb does not move. Maintain this position for three seconds and repeat up to 10 times.

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Exercise 3:

Isometric thumb opposition Rest your hand on its side on a table. Move the thumb a little towards the little finger and apply some resistance so that the thumb does not move. Hold this position for 3 seconds and repeat up to 10 times.

Exercise 4:

Thumb abduction/adduction (web space exercise) Place your hand flat on the table. Use your other hand to resist any movement of the ring finger (place finger against middle joint of index finger). Hold this resistance for 3 seconds while moving your thumb out to the side and back again 3 times. Repeat up to 10 times.

Thumb-osteroarthitis (1)

Exercise 5:

Thumb dexterity Sit or stand with your palm upwards. Move two balls (e.g. large marbles, Chinese balls) around each other in the palm of your hand slowly. Do this for up to five minutes but stop if there is any pain.

For a video demonstrating the above exercises, head over to

Other things you can do: You can try a thumb splint at night and during activities to ensure the thumb is in a good position (not when riding a motorbike though, or any other activity where wearing a splint could be dangerous).

These can be purchased at sports shops, online, pharmacies and many other places, but ideally, try before you buy to ensure it will be comfortable and not aggravate your pain.

Below are some other suggestions for easing pain from OA:

  • Avoid very wide grips on your motorcycle.
  • Consider using a throttle buddy/cramp buster if your bike doesn’t have cruise control to reduce strain on the thumb and wrist.
  • Discuss pain medication with your GP or pharmacist to see if this may help you and what to take.
  • Use ice (covered with a damp tea towel) for 10-15 minutes on the joint if you have normal skin sensation and good circulation. Do this a maximum of once every 2-3 hours. Check the skin regularly to make sure you do not get an ice burn or other problems.
  • Sometimes people find that applying gentle heat to the area for 15 minutes helps them more than ice, so you can try this if you think it will suit you better, but again watch for skin damage. Warming the joint prior to exercises is also advisable.
  • Ease off aggravating activities as much as possible, which includes using your mobile phone for texting or web browsing excessively, especially if you’re getting pain. For a reference list or any further information, please contact Suzie via email at [email protected]