How to treat pregnancy-related carpal tunnel syndrome and mother’s thumb

Have you heard of the term ‘mother’s thumb?’ If you haven’t, it might be something you become more familiar with as you progress through your pregnancy. Mother’s thumb typically starts causing problems during the third trimester, when you are more prone to fluid retention, which can lead to compartments within the hands and wrists becoming swollen, which can result in one, or both, of two conditions; carpal tunnel syndrome and De Quervain's tenosynovitis – also knowns as ‘mother’s thumb.’ Following pregnancy, you are just as likely, if not more so, to develop these conditions thanks to the constant lifting of your newborn.

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What is mother’s thumb?

De Quervain's tenosynovitis (mother’s thumb) occurs when the tendons between your thumb and your wrist become inflamed and start to rub, causing symptoms ranging from mild discomfort to severe pain along the side of the thumb. Anyone can develop this condition, but it’s far more common in mothers who will be using their thumbs and wrists more than usual as they frequently lift and hold their baby. Other factors can contribute to the condition, such extra weight and fluid retention from your pregnancy, and fluctuations in hormone levels, but undoubtedly the biggest factor is the constant lifting of your baby with the wrists sagging towards the ground.

What is carpal tunnel syndrome?

The carpal tunnel is a narrow passageway of the palm side of your hand, that is surrounded by bones, nerves and ligaments. Carpel tunnel syndrome is caused by pressure on the median nerve – when it becomes compressed, it can result in:

  • pain
  • numbness
  • tingling
  • weakness in your hand and arm.

This is common during the latter stages of pregnancy as you begin to retain more water. As your wrists and hands swell, the nerves around them can become pinched, sending pain radiating from one end of the arm to the other.

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How can you treat mother’s thumb and carpal tunnel syndrome?

While both conditions can be uncomfortable at best, and extremely painful at worst, there are ways that you can treat them:

Change your breastfeeding position

Be careful not to put added pressure on your hand and wrists by supporting your baby’s head while breastfeeding – instead, use a cushion or bolster to prop yourself and your baby into a position that takes away the strain and is comfortable for you both, for example side lying breastfeeding position. 

Lift your baby differently

By modifying how you lift your baby, for example, by scooping them from under their bottom rather than lifting them from underneath the arms, it helps to keep your palm facing upwards which redistributes the pressure that can aggravate your tendons, thereby putting less strain on your thumb and wrist.

Rest your wrists

Resting the affected area(s) is by far the most effective way of getting rid of pain and speeding up the healing process, but of course, this is much easier said than done when you have a newborn baby to care for! When your baby is sleeping, use an ice pack across your wrists to reduce swelling. Try not to use your thumbs to operate your smartphone or other digital devices during downtime, as this can worsen the injury.

Try a splint

Particularly for mother’s thumb, a basic splint to immobilise the joint may help to relieve swelling around the tendon and ease discomfort.

 

 

Seek the support of a women’s health physiotherapist

For more severe cases of mother’s thumb, and for carpal tunnel syndrome, you may need the specialist help of a physiotherapist.

Your treatment might include:

You will be shown safe and effective daily exercises to bring pain-free movement back to the joints. 

You will be given a programme so you don’t do too much, too soon. 

You will be advised on your breastfeeding and lifting position as well as advised on how best to recover so that you can get back to enjoying the time with your baby.

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For further advise concerning hand and wrist pain, including mother’s thumb and carpal tunnel syndrome, please get in touch.