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My Experience With Thumb and Wrist Pain (Includes Exercises)

My wrist hurts, and I don't know why. Here's the exact location where I experienced pain.

My wrist hurts, and I don't know why. Here's the exact location where I experienced pain.

Diagnosing Wrist Pain

Anytime I tried to move my thumb, I got severe pain along the base of my thumb and into my wrist (the area that is circled in the above photo).

This article 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 that I know what happened, I know what to do if it ever flares up again. Fingers crossed that won't happen—my wrist has been totally fine for about a year (maybe more) now. Hurrah!

Hopefully, my experience can help you too if you have this same problem. Keep reading to find out what happened to me, from start to finish.

Severe Wrist Pain

This pain 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 and forgotten about it, 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.

It's hard to really imagine what severe means when I'm talking about wrist and thumb pain like this. Maybe this will illustrate how bad things got. One day before I ended up at the doctor's, I was making a cup of tea, and the teabag 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 grab it as it fell, but the pain I felt in doing so was so bad I ended up in tears. I didn't catch it and ended up almost doubled over, wondering what on earth I'd done.

My Diagnosis: De Quervain's Tenosynovitis

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).

What Are the Symptoms?

If you have the following 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.

Three Things My Physiotherapist Told Me to Do

1. Wear a Thumb Splint Immobiliser

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 six 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. I persevered and wore the brace for the full six 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 ended up trying two different immobilisers. I found this blue neoprene thumb support was best, and it worked wonders. Some splints are available in different sizes so make sure you measure your thumb 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.

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2. Apply a Cold Compress

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 15-20 minutes a time. You shouldn't use one for longer than 20 minutes.

I tried a few different compresses, including one that offered wrist support and had room for a cold pouch straight out of the freezer. Another one 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, so it's ready for next time.

3. Do Wrist Exercises Several Times a Day

After six weeks of wearing the thumb brace and using the cold compresses, it was time to visit the physio again to learn some exercises. This first one needs to be done gently and carefully, but it does work if you do it consistently. I've included photos below as well.

  1. 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 will—mine was).
  2. With your thumb against the palm of your hand, curl your fingers over the top of it to hold it in place.
  3. Bend your hand to the side in the direction of the arrow, as shown in the photo below. 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 to never 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.

Step one of the wrist exercises

Step one of the wrist exercises

Step two of the wrist exercises

Step two of the wrist exercises

wrist exercise step three

wrist exercise step three

Do I Still Have Pain?

Short answer: No!

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—my wrist 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.

If you get similar symptoms, 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. :)

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

© 2013 Allison Whitehead

Have you ever suffered from wrist and thumb pain?

Ted on February 09, 2019:

This article helped me identify what has been going on with my thumb/wrist. Thank you!

I live in the US, in a very rural area, so it isn't easy for me to just go see a physiotherapy, so I went to an Urgent Care (an inexpensive doctor who sees any and all people with random issues) and they failed to diagnose it properly and just gave me a wrist splint -- ignoring the thumb part of it. This didn't help, of course, and I just lived with the pain for a couple months ... until I found your article.

I tried the blue neoprene first, but I am physically active (no choice, wood heated home) and it didn't immobilize my thumb and wrist enough. I finally bought one with metal braces in it, and it is doing the trick. I am also doing the ice and exercise you laid out. Pain is going away. Finally!

Thanks for the clear write up and suggestions. It helped me a lot!

Aunt-Mollie on March 24, 2013:

I have a friend who had this condition and I know how painful it was for her. I think you give very good advice here.

KateH2 on February 18, 2013:

I never have myself although I do get mild tendinitis in my left hand and know how painful that can be. Glad to hear your thumb/wrist is now all better. Very informative lens.

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