A month after Stephanie Kanowitz delivered her baby girl, the Fairfax, Virginia, mom noticed a pain in her left wrist. She brushed it off until it became so severe she could no longer pick up her daughter. "The first sign that something was really wrong came when I would put Ellie down or pick her up and I felt a sharp pain and snap in my left wrist, between my thumb and forearm," Kanowitz says. Shortly after, she was diagnosed with de Quervain's tenosynovitis, or, as it's commonly called, mommy thumb.
De Quervain's is a condition in which the tendons from the thumb to the wrist become inflamed and rub against the "tunnel" that encloses them, causing sensations from mild discomfort to severe pain on the thumb side of the wrist.
Early one morning, Jennifer Chakir picked up her 1-year-old daughter and felt intense pain in her wrist area. "The pain didn't last long and I realized it was only when I had my hand or wrist in a certain position," says the Pasadena, California, mom. An appointment with an orthopedic specialist confirmed her diagnosis: de Quervain's.
Though anyone can develop de Quervain's, it's most common in new mothers and usually stems from stress on the wrist resulting from lifting a baby frequently. A 2009 study from the University of Colorado found that women are four times more likely to develop de Quervain's than men. Michelle G. Carlson, M.D., an orthopedic surgeon specializing in hand and upper extremities at New York's Hospital for Special Surgery, estimates that the ratio is even higher. "I'd say it's about 90 percent new moms," she says.
Prevention is difficult because, of course, mothers need to lift their children -- sometimes 25 to 30 times per day. And according to David M. Auerbach, M.D., a hand surgeon at the Southern California Orthopedic Institute, "There's no way to tell if you will get it until you have it." Unfortunately, mommy thumb rarely goes away on its own, but doctors agree early recognition and early treatment are key.
Think you've got it? Here are five ways to get a grip on the pain.
Lift baby differently.
If you're feeling some discomfort, perhaps the single most important thing you can do to prevent further irritation of the wrist tendons is to modify how you lift your baby, says Dr. Carlson. "Instead of picking your baby up under the arms, try to scoop him up by lifting under his bottom," she advises. "Keep the palm of your hand up." This redistributes pressure that can aggravate the tendons when you lift with your hands in an "L" shape (with your fingers on baby's back and your thumbs on his chest), a position that puts most of the strain on your thumb and wrist.
Check your breastfeeding position.
Various nursing positions could put strain on a mother's wrist, especially when inflammation is already present. "Many women cite breastfeeding to be irritating, so if you're nursing, be careful to use a pillow for support so that the full weight of baby's head isn't resting in your hand," Dr. Carlson recommends.
Rest your wrist.
Icing your wrist frequently and taking an over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medication can be helpful, according to Dr. Auerbach. (If you're breastfeeding, check with your doctor before taking any medication.) If possible, have your partner do the majority of lifting and carrying baby to give your wrist ample time to heal. Additionally, try to limit smartphone use whenever possible. Sliding, scrolling and tapping away on your iPhone isn't likely to be the cause of the problem, Dr. Carlson says, but any overuse of those already-inflamed tendons is just going to compound the pain and prevent proper healing.
Try a splint.
A spica splint that immobilizes the thumb is extremely effective in helping to reduce swelling of the tendon and therefore easing discomfort, says Dr. Auerbach, "especially if it's used early." Because Chakir began treatment with a splint almost immediately, her pain disappeared almost as fast. Generally, patients will see improvement with splint use after just a couple of weeks, but consistency is key (the immobilization does make everyday tasks more difficult, so it takes commitment to stick it out).
See a doctor.
If the pain persists after you've tried a variety of self-treatment remedies, make an appointment with a hand specialist, who may suggest either a cortisone (steroid) shot or physical therapy. In rare, very extreme cases, such as Kanowitz's, surgery is necessary but it is usually a permanent fix.
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