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Thenar muscles - want to learn more about it?

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Thenar muscles

The thenar musculature consists of four muscles, named abductor pollicis brevis, adductor pollicis, flexor pollicis brevis, and opponens pollicis. Located on the radial side of the palm, they form together the 'ball' of the thumb known as the thenar eminence. They originate at different carpal bones and distally attach to the thumb. Innervated by the median and/or ulnar nerves, those muscles are responsible for moving the thumb in several directions, allowing you to show someone 'thumbs up' for a job well done.

This article will examine the thenar muscles of the hand in detail, looking at the origins, insertions, innervation, functions, and clinical aspects of those important anatomical structures of the hand.

Key facts about the thenar muscles
Abductor pollicis brevis

Origin - tubercles of the scaphoid and trapezium; flexor retinaculum

Insertion - base of the proximal phalanx, radial sesamoid bone

Innervation - median nerve

Function - thumb abduction (moving away from the hand)

Adductor pollicis

Origin - palmar base of third metacarpal (transverse head), capitate bone and palmar bases of second and third metacarpals (oblique head)

Insertion - base of proximal phalanx, ulnar sesamoid bone

Innervation - deep branch of ulnar nerve

Function - thumb adduction (moving towards the hand)

Flexor pollicis brevis

Origin - flexor retinaculum, tubercle of trapezium (superficial head), trapezoid and capitate bones (deep head)

Insertion - radial sesamoid bone and base of the proximal phalanx (superficial head), base of first phalanx, radial sesamoid bone (deep head)

Innervation - median and ulnar nerves

Function - thumb flexion (bending)

Opponens pollicis

Origin - flexor retinaculum, tubercle of trapezium bone

Insertion - first metacarpal bone

Innervation - median nerve

Function - thumb flexion, abduction, and medial rotation resulting in a combined movement called opposition

Anatomy

Abductor pollicis brevis

This muscle arises from the tubercles of the scaphoid and trapezium, and from the flexor retinaculum. From there, its short tendon courses to the base of the proximal phalanx and the dorsal aponeurosis of the thumb via the radial sesamoid bone. The abductor pollicis brevis lies quite superficially, underneath the skin.

Abductor pollicis brevis muscle - ventral view

Adductor pollicis

This muscle has two origin surfaces. The transverse head originates from the palmar base of the third metacarpal bone, while the oblique head arises from the capitate bone and the palmar bases of the second and third metacarpal bones. The common tendon attaches distally to the proximal phalanx and the dorsal aponeurosis of the thumb via the ulnar sesamoid bone. The adductor pollicis is the deepest of all thenar muscles.

Adductor pollicis muscle - ventral view

Flexor pollicis brevis

It has two heads separated by the tendon of the flexor pollicis longus. The superficial head originates from the flexor retinaculum and the tubercle of the trapezium, while the deep head from both the capitate and trapezoid bones. The tendon runs to the base of the proximal phalanx of the thumb via the radial sesamoid bone.

Flexor pollicis brevis muscle - ventral view

Opponens phalanx

This muscle courses from the tubercle of the trapezium bone and the flexor retinaculum to the radial surface of the first metacarpal bone. It is mostly covered by the abductor pollicis brevis.

Opponens pollicis muscle - ventral view

Innervation

The recurrent (or thenar) branch of the median nerve (C8-Th1) is responsible for the innervation of the abductor pollicis brevis and opponens pollicis. The adductor pollicis is supplied by the deep branch of the ulnar nerve (C8-Th1).

Median nerve - ventral view

The flexor pollicis brevis is the only thenar muscle receiving a double innervation by both nerves due to its transformation during the course of embryogenesis. Most frequently, the median nerve supplies the superficial head and the ulnar nerve the deep head. However, the innervation pattern is quite variable due to the fact that most people have an interconnection between the recurrent branch of the median nerve and the deep branch of the ulnar nerve at the 'ball' of the thumb (Riches-Cannieu anastomosis).

Deep branch of the ulnar nerve - ventral view

Function

The main function of each thenar muscle is associated to their names:

  • The abductor pollicis brevis moves the thumb away from the hand (abduction at the carpometacarpal joint [CMC]).
  • The powerful contraction of the adductor pollicis moves the thumb towards the hand (adduction at the CMC).
  • The flexor pollicis brevis is mainly responsible for bending the thumb (flexion at the CMC).
  • The opponens pollicis does a combination of flexion, abduction and a medial rotation in the CMC, which all together result in opposition.

By those means, the thumb is able to touch the other fingers and fulfill grip movements. Since the abductor pollicis brevis, adductor pollicis and flexor pollicis brevis attach more distally at the thumb, they can also perform an extension or flexion at the metacarpal joint of the thumb (MCP I).

Recommended video: Thenar muscles
Origins, insertions, innervation and functions of the thenar muscles.

Clinical Aspects

A classic test used to examine the ulnar nerve is the Froment's sign. During that exam, the patient is asked to hold a sheet of paper between his thumb and index fingers, whereupon the examiner tries to pull it away against the resistance. Those affected by an ulnar lesion, and thus a weakened adductor pollicis, will be forced to make use of their flexor pollicis instead (supplied by the median nerve!), which can be recognized visually by the flexion of not only the CMC but also the IP of the thumb (positive Froment's sign). Common causes for a positive Froment’s sign are an ulnar nerve entrapment or injuries of the elbow.

Thenar muscles - want to learn more about it?

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Sign up for your free Kenhub account today and join over 852,397 successful anatomy students.

“I would honestly say that Kenhub cut my study time in half.” – Read more. Kim Bengochea Kim Bengochea, Regis University, Denver

Show references

References:

  • M. Schünke/E. Schulte/U. Schumacher: Prometheus – LernAtlas der Anatomie – Allgemeine Anatomie und Bewegungssystem, 2nd edition, Thieme Verlag (2007), p. 314-315
  • J. E. Muscolino: The muscular system manual – The skeletal muscles of the human body, 2. Auflage, Elsevier Mosby (2005), p. 654-665, 677-679
  • H.-M. Schmidt/U. Lanz: Chirurgische Anatomie der Hand, 2nd edition, Thieme Verlag (2003), p. 90-93
  • N. U. Dogan/I. I. Uysal/M. Seker: The communications between the ulnar and median nerves in upper limb, Neuroanatomy, Issue 8, p. 15-19
  • K. Buckup/J. Buckup: Klinische Tests and Gelenken, Knochen und Muskeln, Tieme Verlag (2012), 5th edition, p. 203

Author:

  • Achudhan Karunaharamoorthy

Illustrators:

  • Abductor pollicis brevis muscle - ventral view - Yousun Koh
  • Adductor pollicis muscle - ventral view - Yousun Koh
  • Flexor pollicis brevis muscle - ventral view - Yousun Koh
  • Opponens pollicis muscle - ventral view - Yousun Koh
  • Median nerve - ventral view - Yousun Koh
  • Deep branch of the ulnar nerve - ventral view - Yousun Koh
© Unless stated otherwise, all content, including illustrations are exclusive property of Kenhub GmbH, and are protected by German and international copyright laws. All rights reserved.

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