“Mom Thumb”-Postpartum Wrist and Hand Pain

There are many familiar terms for postpartum symptoms, like “mummy tummy” and “sneeze pee”. Have you also heard of “mom thumb?” It’s a term for symptoms of De Quervain’s Tenosynovitis - pain and inflammation of the tendons that run along the backside of the thumb and across the wrist. The pain tends to be felt during or after picking up or holding baby a lot. That’s because the position and movement of the wrist during repeat lifting of baby can cause strain to this area. This could be due to improper lifting technique, where the wrists/hands are angled downwards as you lift, from excessive motion of the wrists to help lift, or from high demand (an ‘overuse injury’).

There are ways that this pain can be treated, and ideally prevented from occurring in the first place. Some of the tips and exercises are obvious, like wrist and hand stretches, while some of the exercises may come as a surprise, like back strengthening!

Just as the pelvis is the “core” of the hips and legs, the shoulder girdle (including the shoulder blades) can be considered the “core” of the arms. When I’m evaluating patients for symptoms from the shoulders to the hands, I often find a weak, tight, and/or unstable shoulder girdle. In order to treat “mom thumb” holistically and prevent if from recurring once symptoms are under control, it is important to address issues of the shoulder girdle as a basis for arm movement that translates all the way down to how the wrist is stabilized during lifts and other daily tasks.

Here are some tips and exercises to help treat “mom thumb.” These do not constitute actual physical therapy services or medical advice. If you feel you need individualized care, please see your physician or physical therapist in person.

Tip 1: Lifting Technique

Instead of gripping baby under the arms or around the torso with your hands, try scooping baby up with hands at baby’s bottom and back/head.

Tip 2: Breastfeeding Position

Position baby in a way that your hands and arms are supported and not working to hold baby’s head or body for long periods of time.

Tip 3: Manage Inflammation

RICE (rest, ice, compression, elevation) 

  • Rest from lifting and holding baby. I know this is an impossible request for most - but look for ways to minimize it, like wearing baby in a carrier or having assistance from family members.

  • Generic, simple compression sleeves or splints can usually be found at the drugstore or supermarket, and can be worn for support during peak hours of handling baby, or at other times, such as on-the-job if symptoms are exacerbated by work-related tasks.

  • I recommend icing every few hours for 10-15 minutes at a time for one whole week, even if symptoms go away. You can use an ACE bandage or hair tie to strap an ice pack (or pack of peas, ice cube in a washcloth, etc.) to the painful area while breastfeeding or napping.

  • Check with your physician on using over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medicines to aid in reducing inflammation.

Tip 4: Massage

It may help to massage the muscles along the front and back sides of the forearm, between the wrist and elbow. Reducing muscular tension can help with reducing inflammation and tension to the tendons.

 
 

Exercises

The following activities below include exercises and stretches to target the direct area of symptoms, as well as surrounding hand and forearm, and mid-back as the “core” of the entire upper limb. For the first two exercises, be sure to pinch your shoulder blades together as you pull the theraband.

Below are some stretches additional stretches you can do on a daily basis to stretch and strengthen your wrist muscles.


Melissa Stendahl, PT is a pelvic health physical therapist with specialty certificates in the areas of prenatal and postpartum physical therapy. She has a unique approach with clients by promoting preventative care, active participation, education and understanding of their diagnosis and treatment plan so they feel empowered in their ability to achieve wellness. Melissa is a lifelong athlete, military veteran, and mom. She is the owner of Stendahl PT. Follow along on her Instagram.

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