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.
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.
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.