Photograph of two hands giving a thumbs up after getting physiotherapy treatment for trigger thumb

Is This Serious? Why do my Thumbs Click?

Kerrie-Ann Bernard Is this serious?, Pain


You’re here because you hear clicking popping, cracking, and snapping when you bend your thumb, possibly both your thumbs. It can be painful and alarming when your thumb won’t stop clicking and cracking, and you don’t know what to do. So, while we always suggest you talk to a healthcare provider any time you start experiencing new symptoms, sometimes you just need to know how much to worry. Today we’ll talk about cracking thumb symptoms, a possible cause, treatment options to help stop ease symptoms.

First things first, if your thumb joint is swollen, hot, and inflamed you should seek medical care immediately as this could be a sign of a severe infection.

Why do my Thumbs click, Pop, Crack, and Snap?

There could be any number of reasons why your thumbs are clicking, popping, or snapping when you bend them including, DeQuervain’s, ulnar collateral ligament injury, and joint osteoarthritis to name a few. But today we will discuss a common cause of thumb clicking, trigger thumb (or if it’s in your fingers, trigger fingers).

What is Trigger Thumb?

In a normally functioning hand, tendons run through sheaths or pulleys to the fingers to make them bend. With trigger thumb, medically known as stenosing tenosynovitis, the tendon sheaths (a tunnel-like structure that holds the tendon to the bone) become inflamed and thickened making it difficult for the tendon to smoothly glide through the sheath to bend the affected finger, in this case, a thumb. As a result, the affected digit becomes stiff and painful with most people feeling a locking or catching feeling when they bend their thumb.

What are Symptoms of Trigger Thumb?

Trigger thumb is a progressive condition, meaning it can get worse if not treated. Early symptoms of trigger thumb include painless clicking when moving the thumb. As the condition progresses, the clicking is painful with a catching or popping sensation. Typical symptoms include:

  • Stiffness and swelling (especially in the morning)
  • Inability to fully flex or extend the thumb
  • Thumb locked in a flexed position
  • A painful, tender bump on the palm (known as a nodule) at the base of the affected thumb
  • Pain that radiates to the palm
  • A popping, snapping or clicking sensation when you move your thumb
  • Your thumb catches or locks in a bent position, then suddenly goes straight
  • Your thumb locks in a bent position, and you can’t straighten it
  • Pain when you bend or straighten your thumb that improves with movement and worsens with rest

Any combination of these symptoms could be a sign you have trigger thumb and should seek an assessment by a qualified physiotherapist to be sure.

What Causes Trigger Thumb?

There is much discussion about the actual cause of trigger thumb, with no firm conclusion. However, some factors put you at a higher risk of developing the condition including:

  • Hobbies that require repetitive hand use, movements and gripping such as playing an instrument, prolonged writing, rocking climbing or any hobby that requires the prolonged holding of a small tool.
  • Jobs that require extensive or forceful hand use include long-distance truck driving, farming, and industrial workers.
  • Chronic health conditions such as diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, and gout can increase your chances of developing trigger thumb.
  • Your gender, trigger thumb is more common in women.
  • Your age, trigger thumb is more common in people aged 40 to 60 years.
  • Complications from carpal tunnel syndrome surgery. Trigger finger is a known complication that can happen during the first six months after carpal tunnel surgery.

If you have these risk factors and are experiencing symptoms similar to trigger thumb, please contact a physiotherapist near you for a thorough assessment.

How is Trigger Thumb Treated?

Physiotherapy treatment for trigger thumb aims to reduce pain, improve your range of motion, and break down scar tissue that may have formed. Depending on the severity of your condition, and how long you’ve had symptoms your physiotherapist may use the following treatments:

  • Therapeutic ultrasound to break down scar tissue and reduce pain
  • Soft tissue work to break down scar tissue
  • Massage therapy to increase blood flow
  • Stretches and exercises to improve range of motion
  • Tendon gliding exercises to reduce pain and improve movement
  • Patient education and activity modification to ease symptoms
  • Rest and avoidance of repetitive gripping until symptoms improve

Find a clinic button that links to pt Health's find a clinic pageIf you think you have trigger thumb, you can start physiotherapy treatment today, no doctor’s referral is needed.

Evidence suggests that physiotherapy is an effective treatment for trigger thumb. A  study of 48 children with trigger thumb, shows that daily exercises resulted in an 80% cure rate (read the study here)!

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