Ouch! How to Deal with New-Mom Wrist and Thumb Pain

Ouch! How to Deal with New-Mom Wrist and Thumb Pain

Repetitive motions can lead to aches and injuries—here’s how to feel better.

By Liz Krieger

While you may be healed from any physical labor injuries, there may also be some significant after-pains that crop up during the next few months. Just think about the repetitive motions you do umpteen times a day that put strain on your wrists and fingers—lifting the baby, cradling them for hours a day, and grappling with the heavy car seat and stroller. Even breastfeeding can lead to aches and injuries.

Plus, research shows that most mammal moms have a left-handed cradling bias, meaning that instead of switching off which side we use for baby care, we’re prone to keep babies on our left (the theory is this more easily helps us track how the baby is doing in the right hemisphere of our’ brains, where our emotions are processed). Are you holding the baby on your left side while you grab a fresh diaper with your right hand? Is your baby’s head on the left side of the changing table, not the right? Then you’re doing it, and likely causing repetitive-motion imbalances in your body that can lead to soreness and pain.

If you’re having pain or tenderness along the side of the wrist by the thumb side, or pain that travels into the thumb from the wrist to the lower arm, you may have something called de Quervain tendinitis. (It’s named after the Swiss surgeon who first described the condition in 1895.) You might also hear it referred to as the easier-to-pronounce “mommy wrist” or “mom thumb.” Though anyone can develop de Quervain's, it's most common in new mothers and usually stems from stress on the wrist resulting from lifting a baby frequently or from holding a car seat. A 2009 study found that women are four times more likely to develop the condition than men. Other symptoms include pain or difficulty when moving your thumb, especially when grasping or pinching objects, or feeling a snapping or popping sensation in your wrist when moving your thumb.

Here are some ways to heal wrist or thumb pain and start feeling better.

  • Use a lacrosse ball to help release tension. Simply place the ball on a firm surface, such as a table, and place your forearm on top. Then move your forearm back and forth, gliding the ball along your arm, in a slow and controlled manner to help release muscle tightness and reduce soreness. Apply firm and constant pressure. When you find a really tender spot, try to hold the ball in position until the muscles loosens and you feel a reduction in pain. 
  • Get a neuromuscular electrical stimulation machine. A what?! More commonly known as a TENS + EMS machine, this little muscle contraction machine uses electrical impulses to help heal damaged ligaments and tendons by increasing blood flow to damage regions. You can find a TENS machine online for roughly $30 and it’s small enough to fit inside the diaper bag. We recommend using twice daily for 15 minutes and following up with a warm, then cool, compress. 
  • Reduce use. Whenever you can, enlist the help of others to lift the baby or carry the car seat. Your local pharmacy will also have wrist guards that help reduce the extent you flex your wrist when you do have to use it for a heavy lift.
  • Tweak how you lift. Instead of picking up your baby under the arms, try to scoop them up by lifting under their bottom, keeping the palm of your hand up. This redistributes pressure that can aggravate tendons when your hands are in an L shape, which puts most of the stress on your thumb and wrist.
  • If you’re breastfeeding, check your position. Some nursing positions can strain your wrist–particularly if you are using your hand to support the baby’s head instead of placing a pillow there for support.
  • Slow your scroll. Even though thumbing through Instagram may be tempting during marathon feeding sessions or middle-of-the-night bottles, try to limit the time you spend sliding, swiping, and tapping on your phone, which can tax your wrist and thumb. Let this be your Rx to binge-watch or listen to a podcast instead!
  • Talk to your doctor. See whether taking anti-inflammatory medications can help you or if using a splint to keep the area immobilized for a short period of time is a good option. If the pain persists, your doctor may refer you to a hand specialist who may suggest either a cortisone (steroid) shot or physical therapy.
Listen to your body, take care of pain as soon as you can, and rest whenever possible. Healing takes time, but it will happen!