Marc Darrow MD, JD. Thank you for reading my article. You can ask me your questions about stem cells and PRP using the contact form below. 

Most of the people that contact our office looking for treatment for their thumb pain have already had a long history of treatments with limited success. In fact, many will confess that their doctors are now recommending pain management (anti-inflammatories and painkillers) as their primary treatments now that splints, physical therapy, and a generous amount of ice are no longer helping. These people will receive pain management until the decision is made to go to surgery or “live with it.” For many, the benchmark of when to proceed to surgery is when cortisone injections fail to offer relief and is in fact giving the person more pain.

So what do we do for these bone on bone thumb people who have basically lost the use of the hands because they have no grip strength and are being pain managed? We offer a physical examination, and assessment of their pain and functional challenges, and when appropriate a recommendation for stem cell therapy into the thumb joint.

Why stem cell therapy instead of surgery?

Surgery should always be considered the last option. For some people, damage in the joint is so severe and significant that surgery may be the only way. For many others, surgery can realistically be avoided and the thumb joint rebuilt with regenerative medicine injections.

Why should you avoid surgery? Let’s let the surgeons tell us.

Concerns surrounding trapeziometacarpal surgery.

Trapeziometacarpal joint osteoarthritis or rhizarthrosis is degeneration at the trapezium bone at the wrist and the first metacarpal bone of the thumb. The Trapeziometacarpal joint is a tricky joint to repair with surgery. This according to surgeons publishing research in the American Journal of hand surgery (June 2019). The surgeons expressed concerns that failure rates of trapeziometacarpal implants were considered high because of aseptic loosening, dislocation, and persisting pain.(1) This followed an April 2018 study (2)  that also questioned whether thumb joint replacement surgery at the trapeziometacarpal joint provided significant benefits for the patient.

A brief look at this study reveals that doctors looked at four women diagnosed with stage III osteoarthritis at the Trapeziometacarpal who underwent total joint replacement surgery. What the surgeons found was the surgery was able to restore some thumb function but did not fully replicate the movements of a healthy trapeziometacarpal joint. The irony is is that people have this surgery because they have limited range of motion and functionality of the thumb.  Many came out of the surgery the same way. Now the goal of surgery differs for many patients. For some, it is pain relief, but for many it is a return to normal thumb motion so that they can return to work or increase the quality of life in retirement. Pain relief while a successful benefit of surgery, is not for many, the goal of restoring functionality to their thumb. Pain relief and restoration of movement is.

Trapeziectomy concerns

Trapeziectomy is the removal of the trapezium bone at the thumb’s base. Why remove a bone, even a small one? Because the bone is thought to be the primary cause of pain as it has become misshapen by osteoarthritis. In the trapeziectomy with LRTI surgery, a ligament reconstruction procedure is also performed to help the thumb function better anatomically. To someone who uses their hands a lot, as in physically demanding work, the recover time of this procedure is 4 to 6 months. If successful.

Why say, if successful? A study in the medical journal Hand.(3)

Here we have a study from doctors at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. In this study the patient charts of 179 patients who had a thumb surgery were examined. Noted is that 21 patients had both thumbs undergo surgery.

The patients in this study had:

  • simple trapeziectomy with or without LRTI and with or without Kirschner wire stabilization, or a Weilby procedure. (Tendon reconstruction replaces the void left by the bone removal).
  • The average follow-up was 11.6 months
  • Seventy hands had a postoperative complication. (That is 70 out of 200 or 35%).
  • Ten of these complications were considered major, defined as requiring antibiotics, reoperation, or other aggressive interventions. (That is 5% of all patients).

CONCLUSIONS: Patients undergoing trapeziectomy with LRTI or Weilby had a greater incidence of reported complications when compared with trapeziectomy alone. These results suggest an advantage of simple trapeziectomy.

But I am young, I need the surgery to get back to work or sport activities

Above we spoke about the realistic 3 – 6 month recovery time that will include splints, medications, therapies. Some doctors believe that  the surgical repair of Trapeziometacarpal osteoarthritis is too aggressively recommended and this can lead to unwanted complication.

A study in the journal Hand Surgery and Rehabilitation, (4) they suggests:

“The demand for surgical treatment 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. . . The ideal arthroplasty (joint replacement) technique has yet to be defined but nevertheless, the chosen technique must be well-suited to the patient’s condition. Although many studies have been published on this topic, they do not help us define the treatment indications.

Prospective studies focusing on the patient rather than evaluating a certain surgical technique are needed. Trapeziectomy with or without ligament reconstruction is still considered the gold standard, but the challenges associated with treating its complications limit its indications. Arthrodesis, interposition or arthroplasty are also viable therapeutic options. The patient must be sufficiently informed to be able to contribute to choosing the indication.”

PRP injection can help rebuild the thumb joint. A comparison of PRP to cortisone

Above I presented the studies from the surgeons above the challenges they face providing thumb surgery. In this section I will present the options that include Platelet Rich Plasma injections and stem cell therapy injections.

PRP treatments involve collecting a small amount of your blood and spinning it in a centrifuge to separate the platelets from the red cells. The collected platelets are then injected into the thumb/wrist area to stimulate healing and regeneration. PRP puts specific components in the blood to work. Blood is made up of four main components; plasma, red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets. Each part plays a role in keeping your body functioning properly. Platelets act as wound and injury healers. They are first on the scene at an injury, clotting to stop any bleeding and immediately helping to regenerate new tissue in the wounded area.

A 2018 study in the journal Cartilage (5) offered this comparison between PRP injections and cortisone injections. Before I start with this study I would like to point out that many people reach out to me and tell me how painful the actual cortisone injection was for them. The problem is the size of the needle and the size of the joint space. When we inject into this area we typically use a freeze spray and very fine needles. This provides the patient with a lot of comfort during the procedure. Also we do not offer a single injection of PRP. We inject into various areas of the wrist and thumb area to maximize the healing effect of the PRP injection.

To the research – the summary learning points:

  • Various systematic reviews have recently shown that intra-articular platelet-rich plasma can lead to symptomatic relief of knee osteoarthritis for up to 12 months. There exist limited data on its use in small joints, such as the trapeziometacarpal joint (TMJ) or carpometacarpal joint (CMCJ) of the thumb.
  • A prospective, randomized, blind, controlled, clinical trial of 33 patients with clinical and radiographic osteoarthritis of the trapeziometacarpal joint (grades: I-III) was conducted.
  • Group A patients (16 patients) received 2 ultrasound-guided IA-PRP injections, while group B patients (17 patients) received 2 ultrasound-guided intra-articular methylprednisolone and lidocaine injections at a 2-week interval.
    • Patients were evaluated prior to and at 3 and 12 months after the second injection.
    • After 12 months’ follow-up, the IA-PRP treatment has yielded significantly better results in comparison with the corticosteroids, in terms of pain relief, better function, and patients’ satisfaction.

Stem Cell Therapy for thumb osteoarthritis

In our experience of over 20 years seeing patients with thumb osteoarthritis we have seen positive results with PRP and with bone marrow derived stem cells and most recently umbilical cord derived stems cells. There is research coming suggesting that the positive effects of stem cell therapy studied and documented in the large joints, the hips and knees for example, can be demonstrated in the small joints, those of the thumb for example. This was suggested and shown by research in the journal Plastic and reconstructive surgery. Global open. (6)

Stem cells offered in the thumb region act in the same manner as those injected into the knee. In our observations we have noted:

  • We found that in the short-term, receiving multiple injections into a painful joint is more effective than receiving a single stem cell injection.
  • Functionality score increased after first treatment, illustrating that patients experienced an immediate benefit in performing everyday activities with less difficulty.
  • By the second injection, patients began to report improvement with pain at rest. Patients then experienced additional decreases in resting pain with each treatment thereafter.
  • The increase in mean functionality score with successive stem cell treatments shows that increasing the number of BMC treatments improves patient performance in daily activities. 

Ask Dr. Darrow about your thumb pain

A leading provider of stem cell therapy, platelet rich plasma and prolotherapy

PHONE: (800) 300-9300

1 Ganhewa AD, Wu R, Chae MP, Tobin V, Miller GS, Smith JA, Rozen WM, Hunter-Smith DJ. Failure Rates of Base of Thumb Arthritis Surgery: A Systematic Review. The Journal of hand surgery. 2019 Jun 28.
2 D’Agostino P, Dourthe B, Kerkhof F, Vereecke EE, Stockmans F. Impact of Osteoarthritis and Total Joint Arthroplasty on the Kinematics of the Trapeziometacarpal Joint: A Pilot Study. The Journal of hand surgery. 2018 Apr 1;43(4):382-e1.
3 Brandt KD, Radin P, Dieppe P, Putte L. Yet more evidence that osteoarthritis is not a cartilage disease. Ann Rheum Dis. 2006;65(10):1261-1264.
4 Gay AM, Cerlier A, Iniesta A, Legré R. Surgery for trapeziometacarpal osteoarthritis. Hand Surgery and Rehabilitation. 2016 Sep 30;35(4):238-49.
5 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.
6. Murphy MP, Buckley C, Sugrue C, Carr E, O’Reilly A, O’Neill S, Carroll SM. ASCOT: Autologous Bone Marrow Stem Cell Use for Osteoarthritis of the Thumb-First Carpometacarpal Joint. Plast Reconstr Surg Glob Open. 2017 Sep 19;5(9):e1486. doi: 10.1097/GOX.0000000000001486. PubMed PMID: 29062653; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC5640358.

There is controversy in the medical community about umbilical cord blood stem cells. Some insist that the injectable solution contains abundant live umbilical cord blood stem cells. Some suggest that the stem cells are not alive. I have seen the flow cytometry showing live stem cells. The research shows that these stem cells release cytokines and growth factors that awaken native stem cells. I have tried this treatment on myself for both shoulders and knees. After great success, I started using this treatment on patients. I still use PRP and bone marrow depending on the patient’s pathology and requirements. To date the results are excellent for all of these treatments. We are in the process of doing a study on cord blood stem cells (we have done others on bone marrow and PRP) to see which treatments are the most successful. We are awaiting more long term results.