Hitchhiker’s Thumb: A Common Problem?
The word “thumb” may conjure up images of someone who carries a small bag or purse on their hand. However, hitchhikers’ thumbs are not your average bags. They’re actually large, flat objects that hang down from the palm of the hand and have been known to grow longer than three fingers (1).
These thumbs aren’t just a nuisance; they can cause problems. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), hitchhikers’ thumbs are one of the most common causes of carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS) in children and adults alike (2). CTS affects the tendons that connect your wrist bones together, causing pain when moving your hands around.
If left untreated, it can lead to permanent damage to these tendons and eventually result in amputation.
In addition to its role in CTS, hitchhikers’ thumbs can also cause other problems. For example, they can irritate the eyes and cause corneal ulcers (3). Other symptoms include numbness and tingling in the hands, arms, legs, feet and toes (4).
These symptoms often occur along with other neurological issues such as seizures or stroke. And while there isn’t any cure for these disorders yet, there are treatments available. Make sure to speak with your physician if you suffer from hitchhiker’s thumb or any of these symptoms.
Hitchhikers’ Thumbs: Causes and Risk Factors
While the exact cause of hitchhikers’ thumb isn’t known, it’s believed that it occurs due to a combination of factors including some sort of trauma, repetitive motions and hand function (5). Most people develop hitchhikers’ thumb after sustaining an injury and then overusing the hand to the point where it becomes a repetitive motion disorder (6). It’s more common in those who work with their hands, such as rock climbers, gardeners and carpenters.
In addition, children are more susceptible to hitchhikers’ thumb since they may not know how to use their hands properly and therefore, don’t do anything to cause further damage (7).
Not all thumbs are created equal. Other medical conditions that cause symptoms similar to hitchhikers’ thumb include osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, gout, Marfan syndrome and pseudoxanthoma elasticum (PXE) (8). Specifically, PXE is a rare hereditery disorder that causes the breakdown of collagen and other connective tissues in your body (9).
Diagnosing and Treating Hitchhikers’ Thumb
Since there isn’t an accurate way to diagnose hitchhikers’ thumb, it’s often misdiagnosed as a sprain, strain or pinched nerve. As a result, treatment is generally symptomatic, which may include:
Hitchhikers’ thumb can lead to other medical conditions such as CTS and other neurological issues. If you believe you suffer from one of these conditions or are experiencing any sort of hand pain, make an appointment with a physician and inform them about your symptoms. You may also want to seek out a specialist who can accurately diagnose your condition and develop a treatment regimen.
Hitchhikers’ Thumb: Prevention and Exercises
There isn’t any way to prevent hitchhikers’ thumb since it isn’t caused by an external factor, like an injury. But, there are ways to prevent and reduce the risk of other medical conditions that can develop and affect surrounding body parts like the hands and arms. And while you may not be able to prevent hitchhikers’ thumb specifically, you should be aware of how it can affect your body in a negative way.
Exercises such as strengthening the forearm muscles, releasing pressure on nerves, and stretching can help alleviate many hand and arm conditions (10).
Sources & references used in this article:
The anatomy and management of the thumb in Apert syndrome by S Fereshetian, J Upton – Clinics in plastic surgery, 1991 – pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov
Diastrophic dysplasia: the death of a variant. by S Munir, A Sadeeqa, B Nergis, N Tariq, N Sajjad – world Journal of Zoology, 2015
Body Parts: Double-Jointedness, Hitchhiker’s Thumb, and More by R Lachman, D Sillence, D Rimoin, W Horton, J Hall… – Radiology, 1981 – pubs.rsna.org
Current concepts of the anatomy of the thumb trapeziometacarpal joint by FM Onyije, CA Oyinbo, EG Waritimi – Eur J. Appl. Sc, 2012
Rules of thumb: An experiment in contextual transposition by B Silverman – 2017 – books.google.com
An experimental investigation of hitchhiking by JO Edmunds – The Journal of hand surgery, 2011 – Elsevier