Dr. Heather Baltzer
Dr. Heather Baltzer works with patients such as Michael Widdifield who live with chronic arthritis conditions. (Photo: The Globe and Mail)

Osteoarthritis (OA) often strikes feet, knees, spines, hips and hands. When this cartilage-destroying condition targets hands, many times the hitchhiker's tool bears the brunt of the damage.

Exceptionally common and painful, OA of the thumb can become debilitating. This often-overlooked digit comprises 40 to 50 per cent of hand function. Yet, research into hand and thumb OA, as well as what can be done to improve the condition, has not been wide-ranging or abundant.

Scientists at the Krembil Research Institute are now conducting a clinical trial in which biomarkers are being collected from surgery patients for analysis. Biomarkers are measurable, organic substances whose presence can indicate disease, infection or environmental exposure. Learning more about biomarkers could help scientists find a control or a cure for OA.

Dr. Heather Baltzer, the Krembil clinician investigator leading the trial, says the research is needed because previous studies of hand OA have produced disparate conclusions.

What's known is that hand OA is more common in women, which could be attributable to changes in estrogen levels, and in those aged 65 and older, she says.

In other parts of the body, obesity is a known risk factor for OA because of extra strain on weight-bearing joints such as the hips and knees. But with the hands, there isn't the same impact from strain. So studying OA in the small joints of the hands may provide insight into other causes.

"This is really a good first step," says Dr. Baltzer, also a plastic surgeon who specializes in hand surgery at Toronto Western Hospital's Hand Program. She is specifically focusing on chronic conditions such as arthritis of small joints of the hand and wrist, acute trauma reconstruction (reattaching severed fingers) and reconstruction from cancer damage within the hand.​​

Krembil Arthritis Magazine 

The Krembil Research Institute and the Globe and Mail have teamed up for a special project designed to highlight the tremendous achievements of the science and research programs at Krembil. The first of three magazines in this series looks at the brain and spine program, a second highlights the vision program and a final edition, which is also now available on line, explores the arthritis program.

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