If you’ve never heard of de Quervain’s tenosynovitis, you’re not alone. Despite my own decade in the healthcare world, I hadn’t heard of that fancy phrase until I was today-years-old. Instead, you might know it as mommy thumb, which is the lay term for this repetitive strain injury of the hand and wrist, which tends to occur in the postpartum period. Although it can affect people of any age and gender, women are at much greater risk of developing mommy thumb, as it is often associated with the repetitive movements required to care for a newborn

mother kissing her baby on her palm. Mother take care her little girl at home. One week newborn girl.

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What is mommy thumb? 

Let me set the scene: Your baby is about 6 weeks old. He’s often at the breast or being held for a bottle feed, and he’s a newborn, so his favorite daily activity is snuggling, especially with the caregivers that smell like home and safety to him. One day, you, as the primary caregiver, notice that every time you pick him up (which is approximately 1,374,675 times per day), you have exquisite pain and tenderness over the base of your thumb and down into your wrist on the same side as your thumb. 

That pain? That is Mommy Thumb. Of course, it’s not limited to mothers, but rather can ail any human caring for a newborn on a frequent basis, or any other person engaging in repetitive motions as a result of any number of activities or hobbies that entail similar hand and wrist movements.  

Related: Newborns need care, but so do new mamas

What causes mommy thumb?

The tendons in the thumb and wrist become inflamed or swollen for reasons not fully understood, though the inflammation is typically associated with repetitive movements and is suspected to be related to hormonal changes as well.

For many, the swelling and pain in their thumb and wrist make simple daily hand tasks difficult, including but not limited to supporting a baby in your arms while feeding or rocking or carrying, pushing a stroller or picking up a baby or toddler under the armpits to lift them.  

Do you have mommy thumb? Here’s how to tell

Give yourself a very enthusiastic thumbs up. I actually mean it. Give a nice, hardy thumbs up and notice the little divot at the base of your thumb that forms between the two sinuous lines that become prominent. Those two lines are tendons, and those tendons are the source of the thumb pain plaguing those with mommy thumb.  

Related: The relentless exhaustion of motherhood is real—and temporary

I think I have mommy thumb! Now what? 

Besides perhaps caring for a newborn at home, you may be an avid gardener or a budding painter. Maybe you’ve been playing tennis with friends recently, or you type out 7,435 emails a day for work? Or…let’s be honest here, no judgment…maybe you’re just scrolling on the daily, either because your baby is nursing, or snuggled up on you for a nap, or because your self-care of the day involves doing absolutely nothing except for watching hilarious TikToks. 

Related: Errands and showers are not self-care for moms

6 ways to treat mommy thumb

Regardless of the activity causing repetitive strain, the basic suggestions for treating mommy thumb at home are the same. You may want to seek out physical therapy to get customized exercises and stretches, but here’s a basic rundown of tips to help you on the road to mommy thumb recovery. 

1. Wear the baby when you can

Babywearing is a game-changer, especially if you have a velcro baby that demands being held most of the day.  Wear him! All day. Every day. Forever and ever. 

2. Switch up holding and nursing positions

Any position in which your thumb is sort of splayed out away from your other fingers is straining those tendons. Get creative, use assistive devices like nursing pillows, and try to alternate between your dominant and nondominant hands. 

Related: Your best breastfeeding positions

3. Use your nondominant hand

This may seem silly, but make a game out of trying to use your nondominant hand for random household chores and activities, like eating, scrubbing toilets, picking up your coffee, etc.  Give that other thumb a rest whenever you can.  And prepare to laugh at yourself, because you’ll find it’s quite amusing and very humbling to try cutting your meat with the opposite hand. 

4. Use ice or heat or both

A heating pad, warm water bottle, or a warm water bath can do wonders for a sore thumb and wrist.  An ice pack wrapped in a town, an ice bath, or a damp towel thrown in the freezer for a few minutes can be equally effective. 

5. Scroll with your index finger

I know, I know. Sounds almost too simple. But we tend to scroll with our thumbs, and switching digits can lead to a lot of pain relief.

6. Do a few simple exercises to relieve symptoms

With a physical therapist’s approval, doing some wrist flexion and extensions and other daily exercises can strengthen your wrist and speed up the healing process while improving symptoms. 

My pain is unrelenting. What’s next? 

Home exercises and switching up routines are not always enough. If you’re breastfeeding, talk to your doctor or midwife before using OTC anti-inflammatories (like ibuprofen or naproxen), but for some, mommy thumb is just too painful or too debilitating to manage at home. 

If your pain is particularly intense or has not improved after several weeks of home treatment, your healthcare provider may be able to offer additional solutions. Sometimes, steroid injections can provide almost immediate relief of pain and swelling, although this benefit is often temporary. 

A healthcare provider may suggest using a type of brace that relieves strain on the thumb tendons and immobilizes the tendons while they heal. Other times, physical therapy may be recommended.  In the most extreme cases, surgical interventions may be necessary. 

Sources 

Pflibsen LR, Kouloumberis PE, Noland SS. De Quervain's disease in postpartum women. Journal of Women's Health. 2021 Feb 23. doi:10.1089/jwh.2020.8966