Prolotherapy for Thumb Pain

Ross Hauser, MD  | Caring Medical Regenerative Medicine Clinics, Fort Myers, Florida
David N. Woznica, MD | Caring Medical Regenerative Medicine Clinics, Oak Park, Illinois
Katherine L. Worsnick, MPAS, PA-C  | Caring Medical Regenerative Medicine Clinics, Fort Myers, Florida
Danielle R. Steilen-Matias, MMS, PA-C | Caring Medical Regenerative Medicine Clinics, Oak Park, Illinois

Thumb Osteoarthritis Surgery Alternatives

Like any other joint, osteoarthritis of the thumb is typically self-managed by the patient for as long as they can manage it before pain and loss of mobility, and, especially grip strength and inability to sleep at night makes self-management difficult at best. At this time the patient will seek out their doctor who will likely refer them on to the orthopedist for more specialized help.

As with other joints, many patients are often surprised that their doctor and orthopedist are making the same recommendations for treatment that they, the patient, was using to self manage: non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications except in stronger doses or a better splint than the one the patient bought for themselves.

When these treatments were not helpful, after a short go-round, cortisone injections were recommended, physical therapy was prescribed, and then after a few weeks or months, the reality of this managed conservative program effectiveness set it. It was not working that well. So now, according to your clinician, you have reached the fork in the road. Surgery or “live with it.”

Surgery or live with it, is there no other way?

In this article, we will examine surgery and non-surgical options. The non-surgical options we will present here are likely new to you as they are not part of the well-accepted “conservative care,” option. In this article, we will talk about regenerative injection techniques that include Prolotherapy. In our clinics, we see and have seen many patients with thumb osteoarthritis. The reason that we see them is that these patients sought out an alternative to thumb surgery.

Four women who had Trapeziometacarpal joint replacement – the thumb does not return to a more natural range of motion

When we discuss surgery, it is always best to listen to the surgeons and the challenges they are facing in providing joint replacement surgery.

An April 2018 study from a team of Belgium doctors that appeared in the American Journal of Hand Surgery (1)  questioned whether or not a thumb joint replacement surgery provides a good benefit for the patient. Here are the highlights of that study.

  • The study begins with four female patients who have stage III osteoarthritis at the Trapeziometacarpal (the base of the thumb). The four female patients had significant loss of range of motion in their thumbs. This lead to a recommendation for TMC (Trapeziometacarpal) joint replacement surgery.

So what happened after the surgery? How was the range of motion in the replaced thumbs?

  • To quote the research: “The study highlights that advanced Trapeziometacarpal osteoarthritis mainly restricts the MC1 (first metacarpal bone or the metacarpal bone of the thumb) mobility. We also showed that, whereas total joint arthroplasty (thumb replacement) is able to restore thumb function, it cannot fully replicate the kinematics of the healthy Trapeziometacarpal joint.”

So after thumb replacement the thumb does not return to a more natural range of motion. This may not be an important factor for many people, especially people who have deformity from rheumatoid arthritis (see below), but it is certainly an important factor for people who rely on their hands for work or if they are an artisan. Tell a pianist or a carpenter that his/her thumbs won’t move that well after surgery. See how fast they look for an alternative to their thumb arthritis.

Thumb osteoarthritis is caused joint instability due to ligaments that are weakened or damaged by overuse or by a traumatic injury

To restore a more natural movement to the thumb joint, you have to examine and explore the repair of the thumb’s ligaments. Repairing the thumb ligaments is the main objective of Prolotherapy regenerative medicine injections. We are going to discuss this below.

Research: Thumb osteoarthritis is caused joint instability due to ligaments that are weakened or damaged by overuse or by a traumatic injury.(2)

This according to researchers from Indiana University School of Medicine, Tufts University School of Medicine, University of Bristol, Bristol, and the Dutch university researchers who made this statement in their paper: “Yet more evidence that osteoarthritis is not a cartilage disease,” published in the British Medical Journal.

What do weakened ligaments in the thumb do? Cause pain, loss of motion, loss of grip strength, and cause osteoarthritis

Thumb arthritis often involves inflammation of the basal joint (the base of the thumb), which is the joint that allows the thumb to swivel and pivot, it is also called the thumb carpometacarpal (CMC) joint or trapeziometacarpal (TMC) joint (as mentioned above), because the trapezium bone joins the metacarpal bone of the thumb.

The basal and metacarpophalangeal (MCP) (the knuckle joint of the thumb), are usually the first areas where the pain is experienced.

  • The thumb ligament that joins the wrist to the base of the thumb is called the radial collateral ligament, the same name as the ligament inside the elbow. The thumb ligament that joins the base of the thumb (the first metacarpal) to the succeeding joint (proximal phalanx) is the collateral ligament.
  • If the ligaments in these joints are not strengthened, arthritis will eventually occur or worsen. Ligament damage and injury in the thumb can create a cascade of arthritic effects. For example, the cartilage that cushions the joint begins to deteriorate and then swelling and pain develop as the bones rub against each other. The ligaments eventually weaken further as they try to overcompensate for the lack of cartilage. The synovial tissue that lines the joint capsules may also become inflamed, leading to fluid accumulation in the joint. Pain, swelling and decreased mobility are the results, as well as a recommendation for surgery.

Surgery for osteoarthritis of the thumb often includes ligament reconstruction with a tendon and bone removal

Much of the research and attention of surgery for thumb osteoarthritis centers around the removal of the trapezium bone at the base of the thumb. The surgery is called a trapeziectomy.

The trapeziectomy can be performed with variations to the technique. First is the removal of the bone. Some procedures will include a ligament reconstruction to strengthen the compromised anatomy and filling the void left with a forearm tendon. For patients with thumb arthritis being recommended to surgery the term interpositional arthroplasty or commonly referred to as trapeziectomy with LRTI would likely be recommended as a surgical choice.

In addition to the research above, research from the University of Massachusetts Medical School examined various surgical procedures for thumb osteoarthritis. Here are their findings published in the medical journal Hand.(3)

  • In the treatment of basal joint arthritis of the thumb, recent studies suggest equal outcomes with regard to long-term pain, mobility, and strength, in patients undergoing either trapeziectomy alone or trapeziectomy with ligament reconstruction and tendon interposition (LRTI).
  • A retrospective chart review of 5 surgeons at a single institution performing CMC (wrist joint) arthroplasties from November 2006 to November 2012. A total of 200 thumbs in 179 patients underwent simple trapeziectomy with or without LRTI and with or without Kirschner wire stabilization (wires instead of tendons to stabilize the void), or ligament reconstruction.
  • Seventy hands had a postoperative complication. Ten of these complications were considered major, defined as requiring antibiotics, reoperation, or other aggressive interventions.
  • Risk of total complications was significantly greater in patients undergoing either trapeziectomy with LRTI or ligament reconstruction in comparison with trapeziectomy with K-wire stabilization. These results suggest an advantage of simple trapeziectomy.

Thumb medicine can sometimes be very amazing in its desire to do the most complicated and invasive things

Joint replacement can be considered in selected patients who require greater strength and range of motion, although it has been associated with a higher complications rate.

Doctors at the Hand Surgery Unit, Department of Orthopedic Surgery, University Hospital, in Granada, Spain, wrote in the medical journal Orthopedics(4)

  • Numerous surgical procedures have been described to treat trapeziometacarpal osteoarthritis, but no approach is currently considered superior.
  • Good long-term outcomes have been reported with multiple procedures.
  • No studies have been published comparing outcomes of the Arpe joint replacement with those of ligament reconstruction and tendon interposition (LRTI).
  • Pain relief and functional improvement were similar between groups.
  • Pinch strength and range of motion were superior in the joint replacement group.
  • Metacarpophalangeal hyperextension appeared to be prevented in the joint replacement group but increased over the follow-up period in the ligament reconstruction group.
  • However, the complication rate was higher in the joint replacement group.
  • Conclusion: Joint replacement can be considered in selected patients who require greater strength and range of motion, although it has been associated with a higher complications rate.

Trapeziectomy with or without ligament reconstruction is still considered the gold standard, but the challenges associated with treating its complications limit its indications.

Despite this and other evidence, doctors from the University of Michigan write in the journal Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery(5) “With a consistent rise in health care spending, adherence to an evidence-based approach in medicine is more important than ever. Most surgeons continue to perform trapeziectomy with ligament reconstruction and tendon interposition, the most expensive surgical option.”

French doctors gave a thorough analysis of the challenges of surgical repair of Trapeziometacarpal osteoarthritis. Writing in the journal Hand Surgery and Rehabilitation, (6) they write:

  • The demand for surgical treatment for Trapeziometacarpal osteoarthritis is growing and the patients are becoming younger, adding to the challenge.
  • Surgery can only be proposed after failure of well-conducted conservative treatment and requires a complete X-ray assessment.
  • In the early stages, conservative surgery measures can be used to stabilize the joint or realign it in cases of dysplasia, but in most cases, patients are seen with more advanced arthritis and joint replacement must be considered.
  • The ideal arthroplasty technique has yet to be defined. Although many studies have been published on this topic, they do not help define the treatment indications.
  • Trapeziectomy with or without ligament reconstruction is still considered the gold standard, but the challenges associated with treating its complications limit its indications.

Medicine can sometimes be very amazing in its desire to do the most complicated and invasive things. Like performing two surgeries when one would have offered similar results with less trauma to the patient.

Here is a situation where an alternative surgical option is given. It failed. Now the doctors had to go back to the original choice surgery to fix the alternative surgery.

Another team of French doctors gave a thorough analysis of the challenges of Total trapeziometacarpal joint replacement. Also writing in the journal Hand Surgery and Rehabilitation, (7) they write:

  • Total trapeziometacarpal joint replacement is increasingly being performed for the treatment of basal joint arthritis.
  • However, complications such as instability or loosening are also frequent with TMC ball-and-socket joint replacement.
  • Management of these complications lacks consensus.

This study examined the results of 12 cases of failed TMC joint replacement that were treated by trapeziectomy with ligament reconstruction and tendon interposition (LRTI) arthroplasty. The study found the Trapeziectomy with LRTI after TMC joint replacement appears to be an attractive salvage procedure.

Simply doctors had to go back to a surgery that could have been the first choice procedure, to repair the damage of an alternative choice surgery. Two surgeries when one would have offered similar results with less trauma to the patient.

Non-surgical options for thumb arthritis: The research on Prolotherapy

Thumb Prolotherapy

Making your thumb function better and move naturally without surgery is certainly an appealing option. Can this be realistically done? In the many patients that we have seen over the years, Prolotherapy injection treatments into the thumb have provided excellent results. Will this treatment work for everyone? The answer is no. Will it work for you? That is something that is discussed after a physical examination of the thumb and a discussion with the patient of the goals of their treatment.

The goal of the Prolotherapy treatment is to bring stability to the thumb. Degenerative wear and tear arthritis occurs because of hypermobility/loose ligaments. In other words, the bones of your thumbs are moving around too much. This hypermobility is causing thumb joint erosion due to unnatural wear patterns in the joint. To compensate and hold your thumb together as best as possible, your body starts to grow bone (bone spurs) in the joint. Prolotherapy injections would be best given in the earlier stages of the disease before bone spur formation became a problem.

In 2000, K. Dean Reeves, MD lead a study published in the  Journal of Alternative and complementary medicine (8). These were the findings of this research on Prolotherapy for finger and thumb degenerative disease:

The objective of the study was to determine the clinical benefit of dextrose prolotherapy (injection of growth factors or growth factor stimulators) in osteoarthritic finger joints.

The study participants were selected based on:

  • Six months of pain history in each joint studied as well as one of the following:
    • grade 2 or 3 osteophyte (bone spur/overgrowth)
    • grade 2 or 3 joint narrowing (loss of joint space), or
    • grade 1 osteophyte plus grade 1 joint narrowing.
  • Distal interphalangeal (DIP) – the upper most finger joints
  • Proximal interphalangeal (PIP), the second finger joints
  • and trapeziometacarpal (thumb CMC) joints were eligible. Thirteen patients (with seventy-four symptomatic osteoarthitic joints) received active treatment, and fourteen patients (with seventy-six symptomatic osteoarthritic joints) served as controls.

The findings: “Dextrose prolotherapy was clinically effective and safe in the treatment of pain with joint movement and range limitation in osteoarthritic finger joints.”

In our research published by Caring Medical in the Journal of Prolotherapy, (9we were able to document the beneficial use of Prolotherapy Injections. Prolotherapy was administered to 13 patients suffering from basal thumb arthritis in 17 thumbs. Here are our highlights:

  • Considered a conservative treatment in comparison to surgery, Prolotherapy is a simple procedure, in which solutions of dextrose are injected into the afflicted area.
  • Sessions occur over a period of time. The number of injections administered depends on the individual’s progress or failure to progress. A series of injections over three to six months was shown to reduce pain, improve function, and, thereby, improve the quality of life for the patients in this study.
    • Patients typically need three to six treatments to achieve the best outcome, scheduled approximately four weeks apart.
    • The procedure takes a few minutes.
    • A patient could expect to receive 10-15 injections per session for basal thumb arthritis.
    • Patients usually report a mild discomfort in the injected area that may last 24-48 hours after treatment.
    • Normal activities can be resumed as soon as 24 hours.

Prolotherapy enables TMC joint arthritis sufferers to avoid surgery and its possible adverse effects. The substantial advantages and minimal drawbacks (e.g., aversion to needles) as well as the reduced risks and increased rewards of Prolotherapy over conventional treatments suggest that this option for the second most common joint arthritis—that of the thumb—should be considered by doctors and patients.

Thumb Joint boutonniere deformity

Also presented in the Journal of Prolotherapy, (10) our research and clinical team was documented a clinical case of a 57-year-old white female afflicted with rheumatoid arthritis received treatment for a 35-degree interphalangeal (IP) thumb joint deviation.

The thumb deviation clinically described as a boutonniere deformity was treated with a combination of Prolotherapy and splinting. She wore a custom three-point splint for six weeks and received three separate Prolotherapy treatments within that six-week period. After treatment, the deviation decreased from 35 degrees to 10 degrees, and her thumb pain decreased from 7 to 1 on a pain scale of 10 as the highest level.

PRP Prolotherapy

Many people who are exploring non-surgical options to their thumb osteoarthritis may have come upon research surrounding the use of Platelet Rich Plasma (PRP).

In basic terms, PRP involves the application of concentrated platelets (harvested from your own blood), which release growth factors to stimulate recovery in non-healing injuries. These growth factors, such as platelet-derived growth factor, transforming growth factor and others, proliferate fibroblasts which means they spark the production of new connective tissue and cartilage. Specifically, PRP enhances the fibroblastic events involved in tissue healing including chemotaxis (the chemical attraction of repair cells to the site of injury,  proliferation of cells, proteosynthesis (create of proteins), reparation, extra-cellular matrix deposition (this is a subject all in of itself, and the remodeling of tissues. Bottom line here is that PRP helps the healing process

The preparation of therapeutic doses of growth factors consists of an autologous blood collection (blood from the patient), plasma separation (blood is centrifuged), and application of the plasma rich in growth factors (injecting the plasma into the area.) In other words, PRP is done just like any other Prolotherapy treatment, except the solution used for injection is plasma enriched with growth factors from your own blood.

We are going to explore the research on PRP first and then discuss the combined use of PRP and Prolotherapy.

PRP vs cortisone

In the October 2018 issue of the medical journal Cartilage (11) , a team of researchers from Greece and the United Kingdom published their clinic observation in the use of PRP vs. Cortisone ion the treatment of thumb osteoarthritis

  • This research centered on the trapeziometacarpal joint and carpometacarpal joint of the thumb.
  • Thirty-three patients with grades: I-III osteoarthritis. Divided into two groups
    • Group A – (16 patients) received 2 ultrasound-guided PRP injections
    • Group B patients (17 patients) received 2 ultrasound-guided intra-articular methylprednisolone and lidocaine injections at a 2-week interval.
    • After 12 months’ follow-up, the PRP treatment has yielded significantly better results in comparison with the corticosteroids, in terms of pain, function and patients’ satisfaction

Combined use of PRP and Prolotherapy

When a patient presents a more advanced case of osteoarthritis we may suggest a more aggressive treatment to include the PRP preparation. Why? The PRP has been shown in many studies, including the one we just cited to be more effective in cartilage degeneration. Moreso even than the simple dextrose Prolotherapy injections. In our clinics, based on over 25 years experience in treating patients with thumb osteoarthritis, we have found that injecting PRP to attack the cartilage breakdown and injecting Prolotherapy to tackle the instability of the joint by addressing and strengthen weaken ligaments provide the patients with superior results. In the right patient, PRP and Prolotherapy as a combined treatment would be favored.

Stem Cell Prolotherapy

Another more aggressive treatment we may employ is Stem Cell Prolotherapy. This combined treatment presents the same clinical benefits as PRP PRolotherapy except we are using, bone marrow aspirate concentration or bone marrow-derived stem cells.

Stem cell therapy in an injection of your own harvested stem cells. Stem cell therapy is typically utilized when we need to “patch” holes in cartilage and stimulate bone. We explore this option in patients when there is more advanced osteoarthritis and a recommendation to a joint replacement has been made or suggested.

Our published research in the journal Clinical Medicine Insights. Arthritis and musculoskeletal disorders (12) demonstrates and documents clinical results in patients receiving bone marrow-derived stem cells and dextrose Prolotherapy.

If you have a question about Thumb Osteoarthritis Surgery Alternatives

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11 Malahias MA, Roumeliotis L, Nikolaou VS, Chronopoulos E, Sourlas I, Babis GC. Platelet-Rich Plasma versus Corticosteroid Intra-Articular Injections for the Treatment of Trapeziometacarpal Arthritis: A Prospective Randomized Controlled Clinical Trial. Cartilage. 2018 Oct 20:1947603518805230. [Google Scholar]

1 Hauser RA, Orlofsky A. Regenerative injection therapy with whole bone marrow aspirate for degenerative joint disease: a case series. Clinical Medicine Insights: Arthritis and Musculoskeletal Disorders. 2013 Jan;6:CMAMD-S10951. [Google Scholar]


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