Last updated on 28 January 2021
De Quervain's syndrome is an inflammation of the tendons that join your thumb and wrist. Pain in the thumb side of the wrist is the primary symptom, as this is where the tendons pass through a constrictive tunnel known in medical terms as the first dorsal extensor compartment.
With De Quervain’s syndrome, you may experience pain during activities that require the use of your thumb or wrist, such as lifting your baby, holding a tray, turning door knobs, pinching something or turning keys.
If you're concerned you may have this condition, speak to a specialist.
How is De Quervain’s syndrome diagnosed?
Often, patients with De Quervain’s have a classic history of work-related overuse, or experience increasing pain while nursing a newborn in the first few months after delivery.
To diagnose the condition, your doctor will first perform a Finklestein's test, where you grip your thumb in your palm and turn your wrist in the direction of your little finger, to determine where the pain is located. They will also check for tenderness or an inflammatory nodule or lump.
X-rays and blood tests
Occasionally, your doctor may perform X-rays and blood tests to rule out other causes of joint pain in the thumb region, such as osteoarthritis, which may present with similar symptoms.
What are the risk factors for De Quervain’s syndrome?
Anyone can develop De Quervain's syndrome, but certain people are more at risk. Women are more likely to get it, and it is more common in people aged 40 and above.
What are the causes of De Quervain’s syndrome?
Hormonal changes during pregnancy can cause sore or inflamed tendons. In addition, young mothers who have recently delivered their baby and are busy with childcare tasks often experience what’s commonly known as ‘mummy thumb’. This often occurs due to the constant responsibilities of motherhood such as carrying the baby, nursing, and constantly lifting their baby throughout the day.
You may also develop De Quervain's if your job requires repetitive lifting using your wrists, such as a waiter carrying trays all day, or a construction worker using certain kinds of tools.
Past wrist injuries may also be a factor as scar tissue can restrict movement in your tendons, as well as inflammation caused by arthritis.
What are the complications of De Quervain’s syndrome?
If left untreated, De Quervain’s may cause pain and swelling to get progressively worse, resulting in stiffness around the thumb and wrist. This can cause significant disability and affect the performance of everyday tasks.
Your doctor will treat the condition with a specific kind of brace or splint to immobilise the thumb and rest the inflamed tendons, helping to prevent further aggravation. A short course of oral anti-inflammatory medications may also help.
More rarely, surgery may be required to release the tight tendon compartment and relieve the sensation of pressure in the wrist.
If you experience persistent pain or increasing difficulty performing daily tasks, or your symptoms recur frequently, consult your doctor. Diagnosed early, medical treatment for this condition is often simple and highly effective, allowing you to return to normal life very quickly.
How is De Quervain’s syndrome treated?
Treatment options for De Quervain’s are aimed at reducing pain and inflammation, while helping to maintain movement in your thumb and wrist.
Early measures can help to relieve symptoms and prevent the need for more serious intervention. These steps are similar to those used to help prevent De Quervain’s from developing, such as taking regular breaks when using your hands and wrists, or switching activities to prevent overuse. You should also avoid those activities which always result in wrist pain.
A wrist splint or brace, to limit thumb and wrist motion, may allow the tendons to rest, and an ice bag can help reduce swelling.
A physiotherapist can advise you on exercises to help strengthen muscles and relieve symptoms, and recommend ways to perform certain activities without triggering more pain. These exercises must be performed regularly, as directed, for symptoms to improve.
Anti-inflammatory pain relievers can help to reduce pain and swelling. As an alternative to oral medication, your doctor may recommend a corticosteroid injection into the tendon sheath to reduce the swelling.
Surgery may be needed if symptoms are severe or if other treatment options are ineffective. The procedure will open the sheath surrounding the tendons to relieve pressure and allow your tendons to move more freely.
How long is the recovery time for De Quervain’s surgery?
De Quervain's surgery is normally performed as a day surgery procedure, with the healing process taking up to 2 weeks. This usually results in very rapid if not immediate relief of the pain and stiffness. Many individuals will begin to use their hands for simple daily activities immediately after surgery, but heavier lifting tasks may take longer and should not be attempted until you feel comfortable.
You will normally be given a splint in the immediate post-operative period for your comfort.
With this surgery, it is unlikely your De Quervain’s will return.
How to prevent De Quervain’s syndrome
- To avoid pressure on your tendons, use proper posture and carrying technique
- Identify and avoid repetitive aggravating activities
- Take frequent breaks during repetitive tasks
If you have concerns about your hand and wrist pains, don't be afraid to speak to a specialist.
Article reviewed by Dr Jonathan Lee, hand surgeon at Parkway East Hospital