Texting Too Much? You May Have DeQuervain’s Tenosynovitis
It’s a common, modern-day malady. “Texting thumb” or “mommy thumb” happens when you put stress on your wrist or hand repeatedly and chronically, which can lead to pain and tenderness in the tendons at the base of the thumb and into the wrist. The medical community calls it DeQuervain’s tenosynovitis. If you have it, it can make it difficult to complete everyday tasks. You will experience pain anytime you rotate your wrist, pick something up or make a fist.
“Repetitive hand and wrist movements can increase your risk for developing DeQuervain’s tenosynovitis,” says Adam Strohl, M.D., hand surgeon and member of the Crozer-Keystone/Philadelphia Hand to Shoulder Center Partnership. “Most of the popular technology we use today, such as smartphones and video games, demand the type of hand and wrist overuse that can lead to problems.”
Symptoms and Causes of DeQuervain’s Tenosynovitis
DeQuervain’s tenosynovitis occurs when two tendons in your wrist are irritated. The job of your tendons is to connect muscles to your bones, so that you can move your joints. They are rope-like structures that slide back and forth, stretching and contracting to help your muscles create movement in your body. When you text or lift up your small child, for example, the tendons in your wrist and thumb snap into action to allow you to complete the task.
Normally, the tendons slide back and forth easily and smoothly in specialized compartments, also referred to as tunnels or canals. However, if you overuse them in a repetitive fashion, such as by frequent texting, the sheaths around these tendons can become inflamed. This can make even the most common and simple tasks painful, such as buckling your toddler into a car seat.
“The sheaths swell and thicken, and restrict the movement of these tendons. Imagine the walls of the tunnel closing in on the tendon, making less space for the tendon. Less space means more rubbing on the tendon and even more inflammation,” Strohl says. “This can cause burning or soreness and pain at the base of the thumb and up the forearm, or may even cause a sensation like your thumb is getting stuck or popping when you try to move it.”
DeQuervain’s tenosynovitis is similar to carpal tunnel syndrome, except carpal tunnel involves different tendons and affects the wrist. With carpal tunnel syndrome, prolonged pressure causes damage to the median nerve that provides feeling and muscle movement to the thumb and three middle fingers.
DeQuervain’s tenosynovitis is most common in people between the ages of 30 and 50 and affects women more than men. Pregnant women and those who care for babies and children are also at greater risk. And it’s not uncommon to see new fathers suffer from this condition too! You’re also more likely to experience DeQuervain’s tenosynovitis if you have a hobby that requires repetitive wrist and hand movements, such as racquet sports, gardening or video gaming.
Treating DeQuervain’s Tenosynovitis
If you are experiencing DeQuervain’s tenosynovitis symptoms, you should not ignore them. The inflammation will only worsen with time and may spread deeper into your thumb or farther up into your wrist and forearm.
“Making the diagnosis is fairly simple and noninvasive, if the evaluation is performed by a specialized hand surgeon,” Strohl says. “Your doctor can do tests and maneuver your hand and wrist in a specific way to determine the nature of your symptoms. If you experience pain during the tests, you’re likely to have the condition.” In addition, osteoarthritis of the joint in the base of your thumb can also cause additional pain in those afflicted by DeQuervain’s tenosynovitis.
Treatment may include an anti-inflammatory medication to relieve the discomfort. Your doctor may also offer give you a corticosteroid injection to reduce the swelling, which will also relieve discomfort.
Your physician may also recommend immobilization of your wrist and thumb, and a reduction in activities that create stress on the affected tendons. In some cases, hand therapy can also help. There are specific exercises that your hand therapist can teach you to aid in symptom relief and that have proven to strengthen the surrounding muscles to prevent future flare-ups.
“Occasionally, if all other conservative treatments have proven unsuccessful, surgery may be necessary to release the pressure of the sheath around the tendons,” Strohl says. “However, in most cases, conservative treatments will resolve the problem.”