My Wrist Hurts When I Move My Thumb!
My wrist hurts when I move my thumb!
"My wrist hurts..." That sentence seemed to be all I was saying about a year ago. Not good news for someone who writes for a living. Anytime I tried to move my thumb I got severe pain along the base of my thumb and into my wrist (the bit where the arrow is pointing in the picture).
It's hard to really imagine what 'severe' means when I'm talking about wrist and thumb pain like this. So maybe this will illustrate how bad things got. One day just before I ended up at the doctor's surgery, I was making a cup of tea and the tea bag slipped out of my grasp (as it turned out that was a common symptom that helped lead to my diagnosis). It was pure instinct to make a grab for it as it fell, but the pain I felt in doing so was so bad I ended up in tears. I missed catching it and ended up almost doubled over, wondering what on earth I'd done.
This lens reveals my journey from the vague cry of "My wrist hurts!" to an actual diagnosis, through treatment and out the other side with no more pain. And now I know what it was, I know what to do if it should ever flare up again. Although fingers crossed that won't happen - my wrist has been totally fine for about a year (maybe more) now. Hurrah! Hopefully my experiences can help you too if you have this same problem. Keep reading to find out what happened to me, from start to finish.
I am not a medical professional. I can only relate my experiences as I went through them. If you have any kind of medical problem at all, whether it is related to your wrist or thumb hurting as mine did, or anything else besides, see a qualified doctor for advice.
My wrist hurts and I don't know why
This was frustrating. I hadn't bent my thumb back or picked something up in a weird way; I knew I hadn't broken it and it wasn't really swollen either. I thought maybe I'd moved it in an odd way I'd forgotten about so I gave it a couple of weeks to see what happened.
During that time it kept waking me up at night. If I rolled over on it, it woke me up. If I bent my thumb or stretched in my sleep, it woke me up. The pain radiated out in the directions of the arrows in the above picture. But the worst of the pain was in the circled area. So I booked an appointment and went to see the doctor. She thought it was something I'd never heard of before - De Quervain's tenosynovitis. Yep, it's a mouthful (and a handful too, believe me).
She suggested I refer myself to the local hospital for physiotherapy (I'm in the UK and our local area has a self referral system that works pretty well). So I did that and waited a few weeks for an appointment. The diagnosis was confirmed through a few simple movements (most of which were hard to do and excruciatingly painful).
Classic symptoms of De Quervain's tenosynovitis
If you have these symptoms it doesn't automatically mean you have De Quervain's. But it is a distinct possibility. If you ever get these symptoms go to your doctor as soon as possible. The sooner you get an official diagnosis the sooner you can get started on some physio, which can improve things a great deal.
- Pain around the base of the affected thumb.
- Inability to put your thumb up in an 'OK' gesture (imagine you're hitchhiking) without severe pain.
- Loss of grip in the affected hand.
- Swelling around the base of the affected thumb.
- A pinging feeling when you try to move the thumb (feels like you cannot move it at all, then it suddenly 'pings' and moves). It's a bit like how a person acting like a robot might move, only a lot more painful.
Thumb splint immobiliser - The first step towards getting my thumb back to proper working order again
The first bit of advice I got from the physio was to get a thumb brace to fully immobilise my thumb. I was told to wear it virtually all the time for 6 weeks. Another classic sign that you have De Quervain's tenosynovitis is that the pain increases as you do more with the affected wrist and thumb. If you rest it, it starts to feel a little better so you won't constantly bug everyone else in your household with the cry "My wrist hurts!" every five minutes like I did.
The thing is you have to rest it for a long enough period to completely reduce any swelling in the affected area. So while it made typing difficult and slowed down my work a little, I knew how important my hands were to my job. So I persevered and wore the brace for the full 6 weeks. I just took it off when I had a bath or shower and every now and then if I felt a little hot. Even then I just took it off for around five minutes and then put it back on again.
I had the blue neoprene thumb support shown below and it worked wonders. Some of these are available in different sizes so make sure you measure up before you buy. Another good tip I will pass on is that I ended up buying two so I could put one in the wash while wearing the other one. Even if you don't get sweaty hands you'd be surprised how mucky one of these can get given half the chance.
Cold compress for wrist - The second step towards solving the problem
Another good piece of advice the physio gave me was to put a cold compress on my wrist at the base of my thumb a few times a day, for around 15 to 20 minutes a time. You shouldn't use one for longer than 20 minutes. I tried a good few of these, including a wrist support that had room for a cold pouch straight out of the freezer, and another one that was gel filled so you could mould it to the shape of your wrist. I think I liked the gel filled one best, especially since you could put it back in the freezer again afterwards ready for next time.
After 6 weeks of wearing the thumb brace and using the cold compresses, it was time to visit the physio again and to learn some exercises. This first one needs to be done gently and carefully, but it does work if you use it consistently.
Wrist exercise Step 1
Okay so here is the first step you have to do. Keeping the palm of your hand flat and in line with your arm, tuck in your thumb as best you can so it is against or close to your palm. Go gently as you do this, especially if your wrist hurts (which it probably still is - mine was).
Wrist exercise Step 2
With your thumb into the palm of your hand, curl your fingers over the top of it to hold it in place like this.
Wrist exercise Step 3
Now for the challenging bit. Bend your hand to the side in the direction of the arrow, as shown in the photo. Do this gently - you may find as I did that you can't go very far at all to begin with. What you're doing here is stretching the tendons to make them looser, but you need to do it several times a day and make several attempts to stretch them on each occasion. I was told never to stretch them beyond the point where it would start to hurt. Pay attention to how it feels - you'll know if you start to go too far.
So have I finally stopped saying "my wrist hurts"?
There was a time when I thought my wrist and thumb would never feel the same again. But by sticking to the instructions my physio gave me, doing the exercises regularly, wearing the thumb brace when I needed to and using cold compresses too, my De Quervain's associated wrist pain and thumb pain disappeared. I guess I will be prone to getting it again if I'm not careful, but so far so good. Typing is fine too, thankfully.
So if you get similar symptoms and start saying "My wrist hurts!" on a regular basis, don't ignore it. It only gets worse. Get an official diagnosis and then start doing everything you can to get full function back in your hand, wrist and thumb as quickly as you can. Good luck :)
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