Wrist pain common for new moms

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By: Dr. Chris Hashimoto D.C.

Sleep deprivation, a dramatically decreased (read: non-existent) social life, and a general desensitization to formerly “gross” things such as baby saliva and poopy diapers are all well-known rights of passage for mothers. Less commonly discussed, however, are specific physical ailments that lurk in the shadows of baby cribs and change tables, the equally common marks of bewildered and unsuspecting new moms.

 Shortly after the birth of our son, my wife complained of painful thumbs aggravated by the slightest of wrist movements such as filling a coffee mug or lifting our baby out of his crib. I examined her hands and asked her to relax while I pulled downward on her wrists, to which she yelped in pain. Diagnosis: DeQuervain’s tendonitis.

 Once called “new mother’s syndrome”, DeQuervain’s tendonitis is a common condition affecting plumbers, mechanics, athletes, healthcare professionals, and of course new mothers. People who use their hands and wrists doing repetitive activities are susceptible to this condition. It involves the inflammation and irritation of the tendon, or the fibrous sheath that contains the tendon, responsible for extending the thumb. The most common symptom is pain felt at the base of the thumb when it is forcibly flexed. This condition most commonly arises following repetitive activities such as turning a screwdriver, playing X-box Play Station for 3 hours straight, or lifting and holding a baby for long stretches of time. 

When you lift a baby, the tendon of the muscle responsible for extending your thumb (like when hitchhiking) is pulled taut.  Do this once, no problem. Do this 100 times a day every day and suddenly a very basic activity can cause what is known as a repetitive strain injury. Unfortunately, many new moms may not even be aware that the pain they are experiencing is caused by the lifting and holding of their infants.  My wife thought she had somehow developed carpal tunnel syndrome as a result of using the internal mouse on her laptop.  Instead, it was DeQuervain’s.

As a co-parent, I had already developed a new respect for my wife for her ability to soothe our crying baby with a gentle motherly arm-rock, to breastfeed with a cross-cradle grip while doing laundry, or to put our baby to sleep in 7.8 seconds post-feeding.  As a chiropractor, however, it was not until this moment that she earned her Merke’s Medical Dictionary new mommy badge. My wife had not only proven herself to be a good mom, she now had what even the most insensitive, obtuse father could respect: a medically-recognized condition, a maternal occupational hazard, an actual mommy battle-scar.

In all seriousness, DeQuervain’s is no joking matter for those who suffer from it. It is a common condition and while it is never life threatening, it can be extremely painful for those who have it. It is particularly debilitating for those whose livelihood depends on doing repetitive manual tasks. The good news: many cases are self-resolving meaning that, given sufficient time and rest, DeQuervain’s tendonitis tends to heal on its own. However, as in all other conditions, it is in your best interest to seek a qualified healthcare professional’s opinion to not only diagnose this condition but to also rule out other potentially more serious conditions.

To aid in the healing process of DeQuervain’s tendonitis and similar repetitive-type strain injuries, conventional allopathic treatment options can include a corticosteroid injection into the site of injury where inflammation of the tendon produces pain. Other conservative forms of treatment, either in conjunction with steroids or as an alternative, can include the wearing of wrist guard / braces and education from a qualified healthcare professional on improved ergonomic posture to avoid movements and posture that aggravate this condition. In some cases, therapeutic ultrasound to the site of tendon injury may decrease potential scar tissue formation. Soft tissue therapy to the surrounding muscles in the forearm and hands can also be effective in relieving pain.

In severe cases, surgery may be required to relieve the pressure in the fibrous sheath that holds in place the tendon responsible for extending the thumb and wrist. Regardless of the potential severity of the condition, a visit to your family doctor or chiropractor is recommended if a repetitive-strain injury is suspected.

New moms are often so focused on taking care of their babies and learning to live without much sleep that they forget about their own health.  But 3 a.m. feedings and the endless changing of diapers is a lot easier to deal with when your wrists are not in agonizing pain.