“I woke up every morning with my wrists flexed in like a vampire in a crypt,” recalls Carmen. She got “mommy thumb” after the birth of her daughter on New Year’s Eve in 2022. Also called De Quervain’s tenosynovitis, the condition often affects new parents who use repetitive thumb movements (the thumbs-up motion) to pick up and hold their baby.
These repetitive motions can irritate the tendons that move the thumb. The irritation causes pain and swelling at the wrist and bottom of the thumb. People may find it difficult to move their wrist and thumb, and feel a catching sensation when they do.
After a few weeks in the newborn baby haze, Carmen’s wrists became stiff and painful. But Carmen pushed through the pain, which she rated as a 6 or 7 on a scale of 1 to 10. “My pain got worse because I didn’t rest,” says Carmen. She took ibuprofen, but her wrist pain didn’t improve. As a colorectal surgeon, Carmen needs both hand and wrist mobility for her career. And while she was still able to work, it wasn’t easy. She’d wake up every morning with bent, stiff wrists that only slowly loosened up throughout the day. By nighttime, her wrists would reach peak pain after a day of working and caring for her daughter.
“About five months later, my wife told me, ‘You can’t do this anymore.’ Thankfully, she made me an appointment to see a hand specialist at Emory.”
Quick and Effective Treatment for Mommy Thumb
Carmen met with Kate Anderson, PA, who treats shoulder, arm and hand issues at Emory Orthopaedics & Spine Center–Decatur. “We’ve been with Emory for most of our health care since we moved to Atlanta, so we knew they would be experts,” says Carmen. A physician assistant, or PA, is an advanced practice provider—an APP—who works in collaboration with physicians to effectively manage your care. Read more about APPs and the care they provide.
Kate noticed how Carmen’s condition affected her daily life. “We discussed her need to feel comfortable in her job as a surgeon,” Kate says. “But pain also limited Carmen’s ability to lift her child and perform daily tasks around the house.”
After an exam, Kate confirmed Carmen had De Quervain’s tenosynovitis. “She had already exhausted other options, such as pain medication and using a brace before she met with me,” says Kate. “Speed was a factor. We wanted to get her better as quickly as possible.”
Kate recommended a corticosteroid injection as treatment, which reduces the inflammation and resolves pain in most cases. “I was amazed I could have the consult and treatment on the same day,” says Carmen. “Kate was super approachable and answered all my questions.”
Two weeks after the injections, Carmen felt “99.8% better,” and now she feels back to normal. “I’m so surprised, even as a medical professional. The treatment worked so quickly and so well. Before, I couldn’t perform daily functions without pain. And now I’ve forgotten what the pain felt like.”
Other Ways to Get De Quervain’s Tenosynovitis
Kate sees this condition most commonly with parents during the first six months of their baby’s life. But anyone who does repetitive tasks can get De Quervain’s tenosynovitis.
“It’s a condition caused by overuse,” says Kate. “It can happen to anyone who repeatedly uses their thumb, for example to lift or grip. It can affect construction workers, musicians or surgeons.” Even texting or scrolling on your phone can contribute to the condition.
Treatments for De Quervain’s Tenosynovitis
“It’s important to meet patients in the moment,” says Kate. “Everyone has their own goals, and their pain interferes differently with their lives.”
First it helps to identify which actions cause the pain so patients can do them more carefully. Kate recommends patients try anti-inflammatory medicine to soothe the tendons. A brace and hand therapy exercises can also help. If the pain persists, she recommends steroid injections.
If those treatments don’t relieve the pain, surgeons can perform De Quervain’s release surgery. It opens up the tendon sheath so the tendons can glide more freely. After the outpatient procedure, patients go home the same day.
Carmen’s Advice for Other Parents
Once Carmen started talking about her pain, she noticed many parents say, “I’ve had that, too!” Carmen thinks it may be another aspect of parental “silent suffering.” She recommends parents, especially moms, talk to their providers about any pain or issues.
“I can’t believe I woke up like a vampire in a crypt for months. Don’t wait until it gets to that point to see a provider!”
Now her wrists are pain-free, and Carmen wants to keep them healthy. “I keep my wrists straight instead of bent when I hold my baby and nurse her.” She rests if she feels stiff and gives her relatives and friends a turn to hold her baby whenever she can. She also strengthens her forearms and stretches her wrists with exercises to prevent the pain from returning.
A physical therapist can teach you exercises to prevent pain. Exercises for De Quervain’s tenosynovitis improve the movement and strength of the thumb and wrist. Common exercises may include these movements, which start with the hand in the position of a handshake:
- Thumb extension: Lift the thumb up and away from the hand in a scissor motion.
- Thumb abduction: Pull the thumb away from the palm.
- Thumb flexion: Reach your thumb across the palm to touch under the pinkie; bring the thumb down toward the palm.
- Ulnar deviation of the wrist: Bend the wrist to point the entire hand toward the floor.
Find Care for Your Wrist or Thumb Pain
The specialists at Emory Orthopaedics & Spine Center diagnose and treat a wide variety of bone, joint and muscle conditions.
“We are a tight-knit group of providers who work toward the common goal of getting our patients back to the activities they enjoy,” says Kate. “Our approach continues from the front desk to the providers to check-out.”