Mommy Thumb: What Is It? How To Remedy It?

Experiencing wrist pain after lifting and holding baby? You probably have "mommy thumb." Today, we'll cover what "mommy thumb" is and how to relieve it.

If you’ve recently had a little one and you’ve been experiencing pain in your wrist, it could be because of “mommy thumb” ---a condition caused by the way you pick up and hold your baby. Today, we’ll cover exactly what “mommy thumb” is, what exactly causes it, and how to remedy it.

What Is Mommy Thumb?

“Mommy thumb” is a nickname for the condition known as de Quervain's tenosynovitis, which causes mild to severe wrist pain when significant strain is put on the thumbs.

Sometimes, people can develop this condition from texting, but it’s most common in new moms, because of the way they commonly pick up and hold their babies. Due to this and other factors, women are at least four times more likely to develop de Quervain’s tenosynovitis than men. But some doctors, like hand surgeon Dr. Michelle G. Carlson, estimate that as many as 90% of people who develop this condition are moms with babies.

Moms often pick up their babies with an "L-shaped" grip: by straddling baby’s armpits between their thumb and index finger, with their thumbs on baby's chest and other fingers on baby's back. (This grip is shown in this screenshot from the Babies and Bones video below).

If you repeat this method of lifting your baby too often, it can cause progressively worse strain and develop "mommy thumb."

What goes on in the body as mommy thumb develops? The tendons from the thumb to the wrist become inflamed because of the strain. They start to rub against the sheaths, or tunnels, that normally let the tendons move freely. This causes thumb and wrist pain, especially on the base of the thumb and the side of the wrist that’s closest to the thumb.

Many moms develop this condition from picking up their child. It often starts a few weeks after childbirth. So, you're not alone if you're feeling wrist pain, especially if it develops shortly after you've had your little one. And fortunately, there are ways for you to remedy "mommy thumb"---and ways to keep yourself from developing it outright.

Learn 5 ways to remedy "mommy thumb" from Dr. Nima and Dr. Cait from Babies And Bones:

Preventing Mommy Thumb: Switch Your Lifting Method

It can be hard to predict and prevent "mommy thumb." After all, you'll still need to lift and hold your baby, as this is crucial for feeding and bonding. But fortunately, there's a method of lifting your baby that could keep you from developing "mommy thumb" in the first place.

As Dr. Michelle G. Carlson recommends, "Instead of picking your baby up under the arms, try to scoop him up by lifting under his bottom." When you use this method, place one hand on baby's bottom and the other under baby's head or neck. "Keep the palm of your hand up," continues Dr. Carlson. Then, bring baby to your chest. This puts pressure on your palm instead of your wrist and thumb. (Remember: Don't wrap either of your thumbs around the front of baby during this process!)

If you still end up lifting your baby the straining way without realizing it, and develop "mommy thumb," switching to the lifting method that Dr. Carlson recommends will help your tendons, wrist and thumb heal.

Preventing Mommy Thumb: Switch Your Breastfeeding Position

If you're breastfeeding, you may be even more at risk for "mommy thumb." Many nursing positions can strain the wrist, especially if the tendons are already starting to inflame from the pressure of lifting. One of these potentially straining positions is the traditional football hold, where you tuck baby under your arm, hold the back of baby's head with one hand, and hold your breast with the other.

Instead, use a support pillow while nursing, so your hand and wrist aren't supporting the full weight of baby. Hold baby in a modified football hold while they're on the pillow, and tuck a rolled-up baby blanket under the hand that supports baby's head, to relax your wrist. You could also hold baby in a sling.

If you're breastfeeding and still develop "mommy thumb," use a less straining feeding method (pillow or sling) to relieve the tension.

Relieving Mommy Thumb

If you've developed "mommy thumb," there are other ways to lessen the strain, in addition to switching your lifting and feeding methods.

  • Regularly apply ice to the wrist and thumb.
  • Limit any activities that could strain the thumb and wrist further.
  • Wear a splint for a few weeks, to immobilize the thumb and reduce swelling. Keep wearing it consistently.
  • If your doctor approves, take an anti-inflammatory medication.
  • If possible, ask your partner to lift and carry baby as much as they can, to give your wrist plenty of time to heal.
  • Limit time on your smartphone, as texting and tapping may overstrain already strained tendons, wrists and thumbs.
  • See a doctor who specializes in hand treatment if you've tried the methods above and still experience painful "mommy thumb." They may suggest a cortisone injection, physical therapy, or (very rarely) a minor surgery.

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