Pregnancy induced thumb and wrist pain

by Louise McQuaid
Pregnancy induced thumb tendonitis and Carpal Tunnel Syndrome cane make it difficult to care for your baby
Why Now?
Why Now?
Hormone changes during pregnancy change how tendons and ligaments stretch and react to movement. This is obviously a good thing for pushing out a baby but not so good for thumbs and wrists. They can suffer as a result of this change and develop conditions which linger on after delivery.

The most common conditions are called Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (CTS) and De-Quervain's tendonitis.
Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
If you have tingling, numb and painful hands during pregnancy, it's likely to be caused by (CTS). 

CTS is common in pregnancy. It happens when there is a build-up of fluid (oedema) in the tissues in your wrist. This swelling squeezes a nerve, called the median nerve, that runs down to your hand and fingers, causing tingling and numbness. You may also find your grip is weaker and it's harder to move your fingers. 

CTS usually happens in your second trimester or third trimester. If you have CTS in one pregnancy, you are likely to have it in later pregnancies. CTS can also continue, or develop, in the days after the birth of your baby. 

CTS will be worse in your dominant hand and in the first and middle fingers, though it may affect your whole hand. It may be particularly painful when you wake up in the morning, because your hands have been curled up at night. 

You're more likely to develop CTS if your family has a history of it, and if you've had any problems with your back, neck or shoulders. The median nerve passes the top of your ribcage before travelling down your arm. So a previous problem in this area, such as a broken collar bone or whiplash injury, increases your likelihood of having CTS.

If you gain too much weight in pregnancy you're more likely to develop CTS.

Signs and symptoms:
  • Pins and needles in the fingers that buzz when you rest 
  • Numbness in the fingers making it hard to feel seat belt buckles, or nappy tags
  • Achy hands that can wake you up at night and make it difficult to night feed
  • Difficulty finding a comfortable position to nurse the baby
  • Pain and symptoms get worse if spoon feeding the baby in a high chair
De-Quervain's Tendonitis
De-Quervain's Tendonitis
In De Quervain's tenosynovitis, the covering of the tendons on the thumb side of the wrist becomes inflamed or swollen, restricting the tendons' movement. The result is discomfort and pain at the base of the thumb and wrist every time you turn your wrist, grasp anything or make a fist.
It is suspected that retention of fluid during pregnancy initially causes this problem, and symptoms generally start quite mild. It is frequently aggravated by activities of infant care and housework causing it to linger and, often, make it worse. In some cases it can be so painful that hand movements are restricted.
Improvement usually occurs with conservative management, and it is best to see a Hand Therapist early on to commence treatment. It is rare for this condition to require surgical or other medical management.

Signs and symptoms:
  • Pain, tenderness and swelling at base of the thumb and wrist .
  • Pain that may radiate up your forearm and is worse changing nappies.
  • Pain when you turn your wrist, grasp or make a fist which can lead to difficulties with picking up your baby, or holding your baby to settle.
  • Difficulties picking up objects where thumb pressure is required e.g. picking up a plate of food or even peeling the tags on nappies.
  • Folding a pram, bathing the baby and cooking e.g. peeling, stirring hurt 

What Mums say about these problems
What Mums say about these problems
Leanne McGill, Newry

I had tendonitis in my thumb and wrist from the way I fed the twins when I switched to bottles at five months. I had to wear a brace at night for 18 months before it finally healed. It would have healed faster if I could have worn the brace all day, but there was no way I could hold and change two infants like that and I had no help. I refused cortisone shots though. That might have helped. I went to see a Hand Therapist and I wish I went sooner. I had dry needling to kick start healing which had just stopped. My problem was getting worse because I was caring for babies that were growing and getting heavier.

Sharon Foster, Hilltown

I had pregnancy induced carpal tunnel in my right hand. I bought a brace to sleep in, I was supposed to wear it during the day but it drove me nuts. I had no feeling in my hand, which was super annoying as I am right handed- plus I couldn't grip anything at all including a pen. And because I couldn't feel my hand I couldn't even use nail clippers, I had no strength in my hand. After about 3 weeks I went to Hand therapist and got partial feeling in my hand but not my fingertips. I was honestly afraid I would never get full feeling back! But by 6 weeks my hand was pretty much back to normal. It was really a strange feeling!

Megan Harvey, Newcastle

I was diagnosed by my doctor with carpal tunnel and she gave me the braces. But then when I went to see a Hand therapist and when I explained my symptoms, she said it was tendonitis - not carpal tunnel. The pain was mostly in my forearm and I could not lift my wrists or do fine work - it definitely was worsened by use! Fortunately, she taped them up a certain way to basically not let them fall down even when the muscle was relaxed, she also told me to take some supplement - I can't remember which, maybe a B vitamin? - and that did the trick. I think it maybe came back once (while I was still pregnant) but was gone even before their birth! 
What can I do about it?
What can I do about it?
This is the most effective treatment but is nearly impossible with a baby. Try to avoid using your hands and wrists when you can, even if it means letting the house work slide for a short while.

Support the wrist
This is often recommended, to immobilise your thumb/wrist, and help rest your tendons or to reduce carpal tunnel pressure on the median nerve. Depending on your condition the type of splint needed is different so avoid buying one online or at the chemist. It is best to see a Hand therapist and have one made for you or at least get advice before purchasing one.

Modify your activities
  • Avoid repetitive movements such as scrubbing the shower or using sustained positions such as nursing a baby in the same position each time.
  • Carry things with a shoulder bag or over your forearms, not your hands
  • Avoid over-gripping when opening jars or feeding bottles to wash them

Feeding position
  • After your baby is born, try to use pillows to take the baby's weight off your hands when feeding or cuddling.
  • Do not use your hand to support your baby's head; use your forearm instead.
  • Alter your breast feeding position and try lying down to feed the baby 
  • Try holding a feeding bottle by letting it rest in your palm rather than grasping it
  • Stretch your wrists and arms before feeding and after feeding especially during the night
Housework and daily activities
Ask for help with food preparation, especially when using knives, etc. Remember you can buy pre-cut, pre-washed fruits and vegetables.
When brushing your teeth or your hair, try to move from your elbow instead of from your wrist.

Gentle massage might help ease some of the pain and reduce swelling. Use the heel of your unaffected hand to gently rub the upper half of your forearm where the muscles are. You can do this as often as you need.
If massage helps, ask your support person to do this for you, to help rest your hands.

Contrast bathing
If you have swelling this technique is very effective. Set up two bowls; fill one with very warm (NOT scalding) water and one with iced water. Bathe your hand/wrist in warm water for about 1 minute, then in cold water for about 30 seconds. Alternate between the two bowls for three minutes and finish with the cold water.

Pain relief medications
Check with your pharmacist or doctor about pain relief. If you are pregnant or breastfeeding or have a medical condition talk to your pharmacist or doctor before taking any medication, even herbal remedies.


Try the following hand exercises, but do NOT continue if symptoms become worse:
  • Hold your fingers stretched out as far as possible for a few seconds and then relax.
  • Make a fist and then straighten out your fingers.
  • Move your hands slowly up and down, from side to side, and round in a circle.
  • A Hand therapist can prescribe further exercise (strengthening and mobility, nerve and tendon glides). 

At Hand Kinetics we use these and other treatments using therapeutic Ultrasound and Dry needling if required.
For More Information
For More Information
Please contact Hand Kinetics to speak to our Principal Hand Therapist if you think you have one of these conditions.
There are many other conditions affecting the hand and wrist caused by changes in pregnancy hormones that have not been talked about here.

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15 The Avenue, Burren, Warrenpoint. Co. Down. BT34 3XJ

0044 28 4176 7238
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