How New Parents Can Ease Wrist Pain From Holding Their Baby

Parental duties can be a pain in the wrist, but a few easy tweaks can deliver much-needed relief from de Quervain's tenosynovitis.

Mother holds her newborn while her and the father look at the baby.

Jelena Markovic / Stocksy

If you're like most new parents, you spend a fair amount of time—OK, a lot of time—picking up and holding your baby. And while this is undoubtedly good for your little one, it may be taking a toll on your body, specifically your wrists.

De Quervain's tenosynovitis—which once was referred to as mother's thumb—is a condition in which the tendons from the thumb to the wrist become inflamed and rub against the tunnel that encloses them. It causes sensations from mild discomfort to severe pain on the thumb side of the wrist that can also travel to the lower arm too.

"It is very common," says Louis W. Catalano III, M.D., a hand to elbow orthopedic specialist and surgeon based in Denver, who says he treats patients with this condition at least once a month and it is almost exclusive to those who have recently had a baby.

Here's what experts say parents need to know about de Quervain's tenosynovitis and how they can treat it.

De Quervain’s Tenosynovitis Causes

Though anyone can develop de Quervain's tenosynovitis (or de Quervain's tendinosis), it's common for caregivers with babies. That's because overuse and repetitive hand motions can impact the tendons leading to the condition. For parents, that usually stems from stress on the wrist resulting from lifting a baby frequently.

Those who have given birth may also have an elevated risk. Dr. Catalano says several factors likely contribute, including extra weight and fluid retention from pregnancy, plus hormonal fluctuations. But it's still the constant lifting that is probably the biggest culprit. "The most important factor is the repetitive lifting of a baby with your wrists sagging toward the ground," he says. Dr. Catalano explains that two tendons on the side of the wrist are responsible for moving the thumb. If they become swollen—say, from improper lifting—they can stretch over the the wrist bone, causing pain.

So, if you've recently given birth and are experiencing wrist pain, particularly when moving your thumbs or lifting your baby, you're most likely suffering from de Quervain's tendinosis. Dr. Catalano adds the condition can occur at any time, but symptoms tend to start two to three weeks after childbirth.

De Quervain’s Tenosynovitis Treatment

It can be hard to prevent de Quervain's tenosynovitis because, of course, parents need to lift their children—and multiple times throughout the 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, the condition rarely goes away on its own, but doctors agree early recognition and early treatment are key.

Lift your 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 Michelle G. Carlson, M.D., an orthopedic surgeon specializing in hand and upper extremities at New York's Hospital for Special Surgery. "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 nursing position

Various nursing positions could put strain on a parent's wrist, especially when inflammation is already present. "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 nursing, check with your doctor before taking any medication.) If possible, have someone do the majority of lifting and carrying your baby to give your wrist ample time to heal. Additionally, try to limit smartphone use whenever possible. Sliding, scrolling, and tapping away on your mobile device 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 can be effective in helping to reduce swelling of the tendon and therefore easing discomfort, says Dr. Auerbach, "especially if it's used early." 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, surgery is necessary but it's usually a permanent fix.

Updated by Anna Halkidis
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