Thumb Tendonitis

Thumb tendonitis is a painful condition that involves the tendons at the base of the thumb and side of the wrist. The sheath that protects the tendons becomes inflamed and impedes movement, causing pain and swelling. Thumb tendonitis may also be called De Quervain’s tendonitis.

What is the cause of thumb tendonitis?

The cause of thumb tendonitis is irritation of the tendons in the base of the thumb. It is caused by the over-use or any sustained action of the wrist or thumb or repeated picking up or carrying of heavy objects with the thumb and forefinger. Professional pool players are at risk of thumb tendonitis.

This type of tendonitis is common during pregnancy, in people with rheumatoid arthritis and in middle-aged women. Mothers of young babies commonly have thumb tendonitis as a result of holding the infant in unaccustomed ways. Activities like knitting and crochet can cause thumb tendonitis.

What are the symptoms of thumb tendonitis?

Pain is the main symptom of thumb tendonitis and is felt at the base of the thumb, near the wrist. The pain is worse with certain actions, like bend the wrist, making a fist and gripping objects. As the tendonitis progresses, the pain can travel up the arm and may be mistaken for carpel tunnel syndrome.

The pain may come on suddenly or may increase in intensity gradually. Holding a pen can be difficult or painful. Touching the forefinger to the thumb is usually painful. Some people experience a sensation of ‘catching’ in the joint when moved.

Swelling is often present and the area may feel hot to the touch. Movement will be restricted and the thumb joint may feel stiff. The nerves can be irritated by the swelling, so there may be a feeling of numbness behind the thumb and forefinger.

How is thumb tendonitis treated?

The treatment of thumb tendonitis is aimed at reducing the inflammation and swelling and relieving the pain. Tendons are capable of healing by themselves but need to have sufficient rest and time to be allowed to so.

The easiest way to rest your thumb and wrist is to wear a splint. This restricts movement and supports the joint, allowing healing to take place. Movement of the joint needs to be restricted and you must stop doing anything that causes pain in the wrist or thumb.

Anti-inflammatory medication will help reduce inflammation and the application of ice every hour or two will reduce swelling and relieve pain.

When thumb tendonitis is recurring or these simple treatment methods are not successful, the doctor may recommend other treatments.

How can I prevent thumb tendonitis?

The best prevention for thumb tendonitis is frequent rests when doing any of the activities that may cause it.

It is also a good idea to do hand and finger stretches as part of your daily routine. This keeps the fingers supple, reduces swelling and keeps tendons elastic. Try these regularly:

  • Make a fist, then stretch your hand and fingers out. Repeat up to 10 times, slowly. Exercise both hands.
  • Touch your thumb to the tip of each of your fingers in turn. Starting with the forefinger, touch each finger-tip in turn down to the little finger and back again. Repeat 5 times with each hand.
  • Make a hitch-hiker’s thumb. Hold the base of the thumb and pull it down to create a stretch at the base. Hold for 5 seconds and repeat with the other hand.

Doing these simple exercises on most days, will help to keep your hand joints supple and prevent thumb tendonitis.

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5 Responses to “Thumb Tendonitis”

  1. Carolyn Seager #

    I don’t know what to do. I started having pain at the base of my thumb 3-4 weeks ago. My PCP told me last week it was tendonitis. I had to go to the ER over the weekend for something on my foot. I told the nurse about the tendonitis and how it was traveling up my arm and the pain becomes so bad sometimes I feel sick to my stomach. She asked if I’d had an x-ray and I said no. The P.A. came up and seemed not to have any interest in what was wrong with my foot in addition to telling me just to keep the wrist band on to keep it immobolized it. I was very frustrated with her. It continues to become more painful and is traveling up my arm into my shoulder with pain so bad it’s becoming debilitating. I don’t know what to do because I’m not on the computer very much and do anything to use it in a repetitive manner. The other morning my arm was tingling after it had ‘been asleep’. Could you please give me any suggestions that you think would be helpful? I also have severe chronic pain in my cervical spine on the same side. I take ibuprofen for that and have been for years. So I feel as if my PCP and the P.A. didn’t treat me properly. Any information/suggestions you give would be greatly appreciated.



    October 10, 2013 at 8:40 am Reply
    • hi Carolyn,

      i’ve been dealing with this thumb pain for a while and its both thumbs. i went to an orthopedic and they took x-rays and said it was arthritis and set me up or occupational therapy. i went to therapy only tiwce, because it was too painful and i literally couldn’t do the exercises. they refered me back to my orthopedic which said i need to see a hand specialist. My primary sent me to a Rheumatologist. long story short the hand specialist said it was arthritis and wanted to give me a cortizone shot. i said no to that and told him that i had arthritis in my neck and back and it never hurt this bad and could it be a ligament or a tendent? he said no becaus he’s been doing this for 27 years and he would know if it was. so i went to the rheumatologist and she did blood work to check for various things and said it was definately tendonitis. i still wear thumb braces and try to rest them as much as possible. good luck on your quest!


      July 6, 2014 at 8:04 pm Reply
    • Stefanie #

      Hi Carolyn,
      I don’t usually reply to postings, but yours got my attention. You mentioned that you have neck issues also. I deal with that same pain throughout my arm, and wake up during the night with @ least one arm feeling numb, a total dead wait limb that I literally have to use my body to toss it over to get up.
      Not sure if you might have the same issue that I do, which is a deep pinched nerve. However, I let my symptoms go for too long of a period that when I finally saw a surgeon, he said that I have a bone spur that has dug itself deep within the nerve. He wouldn’t touch it, said it was too deep and that there was too high of a risk that it could possibly leave me paralyzed from the neck down.
      The reason I wanted to fill you in on my own situation etc is that you may want to get another opinion. Don’t let it go on for too long. Maybe next time you go in or see another Dr. maybe start with your neck issues, working down the arm to your hand. Especially if you may have jolted/jerked your neck in the past in one way or another. Best of luck and hope you can get some relief soon.

      May 29, 2015 at 11:21 pm Reply
  2. LMH #

    Lynne, looks like your entry was very recent. I too started having thumb pain at the base, very intense, and no activity that i could attribute it to as far as a possible cause. That went on for about 2 months, and then it began creeping up my wrist area. I have it in both thumbs, so it seemed very odd that I would have strained them both identically at the same time, but seemed to me more that something else was the cause, perhaps a condition of some sort. I let my PCP know and she said we could xray and that it might be arthritits..again both thumbs at same exact time?
    So I researched it on my own and determined that it is in fact thumb tendonitis and to be even more specific, De Quervain’s tendonitis.
    treatment is rest ice anti-inflammatory meds, possibly splint to immobolize. Hope you have found out what you are experiencing and are on the way to recoering. I als read that it can be caused by thyroid issues, which i am experiencing currently and that is what the suspected cause is for myself.

    July 9, 2014 at 4:03 am Reply
  3. THANK YOU! you have all described what recently happened to me! Sudden onset of pain in my thumb down to my wrist. Literally made me nauseated. My dr started me on PT (though wasn’t sure what it was – but ruled out carpel tunnel and arthritis). the therapist said that the tendon was probably strained(but I hadn’t done anything out of the ordinary) and gave me some things to do to strengthen which is fine unless it hurts to freakin’ much! (please note HEAVY sigh… :)
    Also – I thought I felt/heard a kind of popping – which I thought that can’t be right – but in the description of DeQuervains thumb tendonitis – there it is! I’m not crazy!
    I will say the Prednisone really helped – and it appeared to go away but now its back. And I do not want to take THAT stuff on a regular basis! the thumb splint saves me and gel packs I keep in the fridge.
    Anyways – its nice to see this dx and your comments – I didn’t want to go back to the dr but he is great and very open to self-dx 😉 so now I will and maybe we can figure something out.
    thanks again – and I hope you find relief! (if I do – will post it!)

    March 18, 2015 at 2:24 pm Reply

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