Tendons are strong, fibrous bands of tissue connecting muscles to bones. Some tendons are covered by a protective, lubricated insulation called a “synovial sheath.” The two tendons on the thumb-side of your wrist that extend and abduct your thumb into a “hitchhiker” position are covered by a sheath. Normally, these tendons move freely within this covering, much like a sword sliding through a sheath.
If these tendons and sheaths are forced to repetitively rub against the bones of your wrist, they can become painfully swollen. This condition is called De Quervain’s tenosynovitis.
The pain of De Quervain’s tenosynovitis may begin abruptly, but more commonly starts gradually and increases over time. The pain is provoked by movements of your thumb or wrist. In more severe cases, you may notice swelling on the outside of your wrist. Some patients complain of “catching” or a slight “squeaking” sound while moving their wrist.
Activities like gardening, knitting, cooking, playing a musical instrument, carpentry, walking a pet on a leash, texting, video gaming and sports like golf, volleyball, fly fishing and racquet sports are known triggers. The condition was once known as “Washer woman’s sprain,” since wringing out wet clothes can trigger the problem. Lifting infants or children by placing your outstretched finger and thumb beneath their armpit has led to the nicknames of “Mommy thumb” or “Baby wrist.”
The condition strikes women much more frequently than men. It typically affects middle-age adults and is more slightly common in African-Americans, patients with diabetes or rheumatoid arthritis may be at higher risk for this problem.
Many patients will experience resolution of their symptoms through conservative care, like the type provided in our office. You should avoid lifting, grasping and pinching movements, especially when your wrist is bent toward either side. You may need to find alternate ways to lift children and perform work, sport and leisure activities. Video game players and those who text should take frequent breaks and try to hold their wrists straighter. Avoid wearing tight wristbands. Applying ice to your wrist for 10 minutes every hour or performing an “ice massage” (freeze a paper cup filled with water, tear off the bottom to expose the ice, massage over the tendons in a figure-eight pattern for 6-10 minutes, taking breaks as needed) can provide relief.
Patients who have severe pain or swelling are less likely to respond to conservative care. These patients may require a cortisone injection to relieve their pain, however, surgery is rarely necessary.