Mother’s thumb, or “mommy’s thumb,” is a condition that causes pain at the base of the thumb. The condition typically occurs due to repetitive hand movements or overuse of the thumb and wrist.
Anyone can develop mother’s thumb, but it commonly affects people who have recently given birth. The reason for this may be hormonal changes or the frequent holding of a newborn.
In this article, we discuss mother’s thumb in more detail, including its causes and treatment options. We also provide information on recovery time and when to see a doctor.
The technical term for “mother’s thumb” is de Quervain’s tenosynovitis. The condition involves swelling of the tendons around the base of the thumb. Swelling can also occur in the tendon sheath, which covers the tendons.
Repetitive movements or overuse of the thumb and wrist may cause irritation or constriction of the tendons, resulting in swelling. This swelling can cause pain, tenderness, and limited movement around the thumb and wrist.
The symptoms of mother’s thumb usually affect the base of the thumb or the wrist area beneath the thumb. They may include:
- a dull or sharp pain, which may come on slowly or suddenly
- increased pain with thumb or wrist movements
- pain that extends into the thumb and forearm
- a “catching” or “snapping” sensation when moving the thumb
- swelling, which may make hand movements difficult
- redness or warmth around the affected area
- a fluid-filled cyst by the affected area
People who develop mother’s thumb following a pregnancy typically start to experience symptoms 4–6 weeks after giving birth.
Doctors are unsure exactly what causes mother’s thumb. However, the condition is likely due to repetitive hand movements involving the thumb or wrist. Such hand movements may occur as a result of:
- using tools
- carrying heavy bags
- scrolling, texting, or using a smartphone for extended periods
- holding a baby for a long time in certain positions
Other possible causes of mother’s thumb include:
- hormonal changes
- wrist strain or injury
- rheumatoid arthritis
The following treatment strategies may help relieve the symptoms of mother’s thumb.
People with mother’s thumb may benefit from the following home treatments:
- wearing a splint to support the thumb and limit wrist movement
- taking an over-the-counter (OTC) nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) to reduce inflammation and pain
- avoiding repetitive wrist or thumb movements or other activities that trigger pain
People may also be able to minimize the symptoms by taking the following steps:
- keeping the thumb close to the hand rather than extending it away from the forefinger
- using the opposite hand for activities that require less control, such as brushing the teeth
- using the opposite hand for texting or typing, where possible
- switching baby holding positions frequently, if looking after an infant
Hand exercises for mother’s thumb
Once the pain of mother’s thumb has subsided, the following hand exercises may promote healing. People can repeat these exercises every 2 hours, performing 5–10 repetitions of each exercise.
Upward thumb stretch
- Place the affected hand palm down on a table.
- Use the opposite hand to pull the thumb up and away from the table gently.
- Gently return the thumb to its starting position next to the fingers.
Side thumb stretch
- Place the affected hand on a table in a karate-chop position. The little finger should be pressed flat against the table, and the thumb should be facing upward.
- Using the opposite hand, gently pull the thumb away from the fingers.
- Gently bring the thumb back to rest on top of the fingers.
- Place the forearm on a table so that the thumb is facing upward. Rest the wrist on the edge of the table, with the hand hanging over the edge and the thumb facing upward.
- Gently bend the wrist downward, with the little finger facing the floor.
- Stop when the position feels uncomfortable.
- Slowly return to the starting position, using the opposite hand to help if necessary.
Home treatments may not always be effective in alleviating mother’s thumb. In such cases, people may require one or more of the following medical treatments:
- application of heat or ice to alleviate pain or swelling
- physical therapy to strengthen the wrist and surrounding area
- a corticosteroid injection into the tendon sheath to alleviate inflammation
If the above methods are not effective, a person may require surgery to create more room for the tendons within the tendon sheath.
The recovery time for mother’s thumb can vary from person to person. Some people may need to wear a splint for 2–3 weeks to ease any pain before they begin trying hand exercises.
People who require surgery for mother’s thumb may need to wear a splint for 1–4 weeks following their surgery, and it can take 6–12 weeks for the hand to heal completely. After this time, people will usually be able to move the wrist and thumb freely without any pain.
If home remedies are not effective in alleviating mother’s thumb, a person should see a doctor.
The doctor may carry out a simple test called the Finkelstein test to diagnose mother’s thumb.
They will ask the individual to place the affected thumb against the palm and then fold the fingers over the thumb to make a fist. The person will then need to bend the outer edge of the hand toward the wrist.
If this exercise causes pain along the side of the thumb and wrist, a person may have mother’s thumb.
Mother’s thumb is a condition that affects the base of the thumb and wrist. Swelling of the tendons or tendon sheath in the base of the thumb can cause pain and difficulty of movement.
Mother’s thumb may develop as a result of overuse or repetitive movements of the thumb and wrist. The condition is more common in females, particularly after pregnancy and during middle age.
Rest and home treatments are usually sufficient for a person to regain full use of their thumb and wrist. In some cases, a person may need further treatments, such as physical therapy, corticosteroid injections, or tendon release surgery.