What do hitchhiking, playing video games, starting a car, and opening a pickle jar have in common? They all require the use of our thumb. As humans we are one of the only species with an opposable thumb; however, we often forget how important this little digit really is.
Try to imagine what life would be like without the use of your thumb. An injury known as De Quervain’s tenosynovitis can lead to pain and decreased movement of the thumb and limit the ability to grip, lift, pinch, open doors, type and perform all activities involving the thumb.
De Quervain’s tenosynovitis is a condition where the lining around two tendons in the thumb and wrist becomes inflamed. These muscles start in our forearm, cross the wrist and end in our thumb. Inflammation around the tendons for these muscles can occur from either a traumatic injury or from repetitive movements that cause small micro-injuries, eventually leading to inflammation.
Any person who uses their thumb and wrist repetitively throughout the day may be at risk of developing this condition. New moms who are often lifting their babies, office workers who type for a large portion of their day, workers who hold heavy equipment in their hands and perform twisting movements of their wrist, and people who play golf or racket sports like tennis, are often at a high risk as well.
If you have this condition, thumb and wrist movements can be painful and the range of movement of the thumb and wrist can be limited. This pain may cause people to avoid using the affected hand. However, because we have two hands, people often compensate with the other one, letting the pain persist and the condition go untreated.
The best thing you can do if you have De Quervain’s tensosynovitis is to treat it before it gets out of control.
If the pain has only been present for a few days, start your treatment by applying an ice pack or placing your hand in an ice bath for 10 minutes a few times per day, especially when it is sore. Controlling the initial inflammation can often prevent future problems.
If repetitive wrist and thumb movements are part of your daily life, try avoiding these movements. If it is impossible to avoid them, you can wear a thumb splica (thumb brace) that supports your thumb and prevents you from moving it in the aggravating positions. This allows your thumb muscles to relax and inhibits the tendons from moving through the inflamed lining. Early on, avoiding irritating movements in combination with inflammation control can help to stop the pain in its tracks.
If you do not address this problem in the early stages, the inflammation can lead to scar tissue formation and a narrowing of the tendon lining. If this happens, it can become very difficult to move your thumb and wrist due to stiffness and pain.
If your symptoms are worsening, it is best to see a health care professional who can help to diagnose your problem, as other joint conditions such as osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis can also present with thumb pain. If the condition is in fact De Quervain’s tenosynovitis, see your physiotherapists who can help you to reduce the pain and increase your range of motion so you can have use of that extraordinary opposable thumb once again.