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Physical Therapist's Guide to De Quervain's Tendinitis

De Quervain's (dih-kwer-VAINS) tendinitis is a condition that causes pain and tenderness at the thumb side of the wrist, at the base of the thumb and forearm. Pain is worsened with grasping or extending the thumb (pulling it back like "thumbing a ride"). People of all ages can develop this condition, which usually happens when the tendons are strained by prolonged or repetitive use of the hand, rapid or forceful hand use, or use of the hand or arm in an awkward position. Tendons at the wrist become irritated and thickened, resulting in pain when moving the thumb and grasping objects. Common forms of treatment for De Quervain’s include splinting and range-of-motion exercises. Injection for cortisone by a doctor is common treatment. Persistent cases may require surgery.

What is De Quervain's Tendinitis?

De Quervain's tendinitis is a common condition involving tendons of the wrist. Tendons are tough cords or bands of connective tissue that attach muscles to a bone. The thumb and wrist extensor tendons (Abductor Pollicus Longus and Extensor Pollicus Brevis) are encased in a "sheath" or a tunnel at the wrist, which keeps the tendons in place. De Quervain's tendinitis can occur gradually or suddenly, when the tendons become inflamed or thickened from overload or repetitive use, and have difficulty sliding through the extensor tunnel.

Risk factors for developing De Quervain's tendinitis include:

  • Chronic overuse of the hand.
  • Excessive use of the thumb from texting and gaming.
  • Being female (women are 8 to 10 times more likely to develop this condition than men).
  • Pregnancy.
  • Using the hand or arm in a position that feels awkward.
  • Participation in sports that stress the hand and wrist, such as golf and tennis.
  • Age greater than 40 years.
  • Race; members of the black community may be more likely to experience this problem.

How Does it Feel?

A person who has De Quervain's tendinitis may:

  • Feel localized tenderness, pain, and, swelling at the wrist near where the thumb is attached to the forearm.
  • Have difficulty pinching or grasping with the thumb or hand.
  • Feel pain when moving the wrist from side to side or twisting it.
  • Experience limited motion and feeling of weakness in the thumb.
  • Have difficulty flexing the thumb.
  • Notice a "catching" or "snapping" sensation with movement of the thumb (a less common symptom).

Active use of the hand with activities, such as writing, opening jars, lifting a child, hammering, sports, and any workplace or home activity that involves pinching or grasping with the thumb, can provoke the symptoms of pain, stiffness, and weakness.

Note: Other conditions of the wrist and hand can cause symptoms similar to those stated here. Your physical therapist will help to identify any underlying problems of your joints, tissues, or nerves that may be causing similar symptoms.

How Is It Diagnosed?

Your physical therapist will ask you how and when you first experienced symptoms, and what it feels like at the present time. Your therapist will perform a physical exam that will include feeling for tender spots, measuring the flexibility and range of motion of the thumb and wrist, and testing the strength of the thumb muscles and grip. Your physical therapist will also perform a Finkelstein test, which gently stretches the tendons on the thumb side of the wrist through the extensor tunnel. Pain during this test is common with De Quervain’s tendinitis.

Your physical therapist will also perform other tests to rule out any underlying conditions that may mimic De Quervain's symptoms.

How Can a Physical Therapist Help?

If your physical therapist confirms De Quervain’s Tendinitis from an evaluation, they will work with you to develop an individualized plan with you for this condition.

Your physical therapist will review and evaluate how you use your hand and wrist for functional activity. The review will include your daily activities, work, and sports activities. The physical therapist will try to help you identify what activities or positions that you use that may contribute to the problem. They will instruct you how to make changes in your function to help healing and reduce risk of the problem in the future.

Specific instructions may include avoiding repetitive thumb and/or wrist movements, avoid flexing the thumb, and avoid moving the hand toward the pinkie finger as much as possible. You should also avoid forceful hand movements, and any movements or activities that increase pain.

The therapist may provide a wrist splint to position your wrist and thumb for rest, and to provide compression to help pain and swelling.

Your therapist may also work with you to reduce pain and inflammation.

Ultrasound therapy may be applied to improve pain. This treatment uses ultrasonic sound waves applied over the involved area to improve circulation, reduce swelling, and aide healing of the tissues and tendons.

Iontophoresis is another option to reduce swelling and pain. Iontophoresis is a type of electrical stimulation that is used to administer medication to the problem area through your skin.

Ice or heat may be recommended for short term pain relief. Your therapist will advise you for what is best for your condition.

Exercise is prescribed to improve range of motion and prevent stiffness. Early on, exercise is restricted to avoid aggravating the condition. As the condition improves, exercises will be progressed to improve strength for functional activity, as well as improve active range of motion of the thumb and wrist.

If your symptoms do not respond to conservative care, your physical therapist will refer you to a physician who will determine if you need medication, injection, or surgical care for further recovery.

How Can a Physical Therapist Help Before & After Surgery?

If your De Quervain's problem does require surgery, your physical therapist may fit a splint to your hand and wrist after the procedure. Your physical therapist will help you to control any swelling, maintain and improve your hand and wrist flexibility, build your strength, and improve your range of motion, allowing you to safely return to your preinjury activity levels.

Can this Injury or Condition be Prevented?

It may be possible to prevent De Quervain's tendinitis. Some risk factors cannot be controlled, such as gender, race, or age; however, physical therapists recommend that you:

  • Avoid chronic overuse of the hand.
  • Avoid or restrict overly forceful use of the wrist.
  • Avoid excessive use of the thumbs for texting and gaming.
  • Avoid putting the wrist and hand in awkward positions while using the hand or arm.
  • Train and condition in sports, such as golf and tennis to minimize wrist and thumb strain.

Your physical therapist can teach you correct and safe hand and wrist positions to maintain during your daily home, work, and sport activities.

Real Life Experiences

Janet is a mother of a 2-year-old boy, and is expecting her second child in 3 months. Her part-time job as a secretary requires her to spend 90% of her work day typing on a keyboard. Recently, Janet noticed her right wrist near her thumb was starting to feel sore after work. When she got home, she had trouble picking up her child because of the pain she felt on the thumb side of her wrist. On a recent weekend, Janet spent a lot of time painting to get her new nursery ready. On Monday morning she felt a constant pain in her wrist and forearm that was worse with grasping. She could hardly pick up her coffee cup. She was unable to work. She called her physical therapist.

Janet's physical therapist performed an evaluation of her wrist and hand. He found swelling and tenderness of the thumb extensor tendons. Gently bending the wrist to the "pinkie side" and flexing the thumb increased her pain. The Finkelstein test confirmed De Quervain’s tendinitis. He also noticed her hand and wrist movements were limited.

Janet's physical therapist treated the area with ultrasound to reduce the pain and swelling, and fitted her with a wrist-thumb spica splint to limit use of the affected tendons, and to provide compression. He showed her how to perform gentle movements of the thumb for stiffness in a way that did not increase her symptoms. He cautioned her to avoid lifting and typing as much as possible for 2 weeks. He also recommended ice to the area for 10 minutes, 2 to 3 times a day, to reduce pain and swelling.

Janet felt improvement after her first treatment. She returned for treatment 2 times a week for ultrasound, soft-tissue massage, and modified exercises.

Two weeks later, Janet reported that her pain was no longer constant, and when present, it felt 50% better. She still experienced pain when lifting her child and using the keyboard for longer than 30 minutes. At her physical therapist's suggestion, Janet modified her work habits; for example, she began using a voice dictation program to reduce the amount of time she spent typing. She was happy to note that holding her coffee cup, and similar activities of daily living were no longer painful.

Janet kept using her splint daily with activity throughout her rehabilitation, and continued to restrict any activities that created or increased her pain symptoms. She also made changes to her workspace as recommended by her physical therapist, and changed the position of her hands to reduce joint stress at her wrist and hand during work.

Four weeks after her initial visit with the physical therapist, Janet's pain was minimal and only occurred with movements that stressed the thumb side of the wrist, such as holding a gallon of milk. She continues her home exercise program for strengthening her wrist, thumb, and grip. She continues to use her splint intermittently with activity. She feels stronger and more confident lifting her child, and is gradually returning to her full activity levels.

What Kind of Physical Therapist Do I Need?

All physical therapists are prepared through education and experience to treat De Quervain's tendinitis. However, you may want to consider:

  • A physical therapist who is experienced in treating people with hand conditions, sports injuries, or repetitive stress injuries of the upper limb.
  • Physical therapists who have a practice with a focus on hand rehabilitation.
  • A physical therapist who is a board-certified clinical specialist, or who has completed a residency or fellowship in Orthopedic or hand therapy. This therapist has advanced knowledge, experience, and skills that may apply to your condition.

You can find physical therapists who have these and other credentials by using Find a PT, the online tool built by the American Physical Therapy Association to help you search for physical therapists with specific clinical expertise in your geographic area.

General tips when you're looking for a physical therapist (or any other health care provider):

  • Get recommendations from family and friends or from other health care providers.
  • When you contact a physical therapy clinic for an appointment, ask about the physical therapists' experience in helping people who have De Quervain's tendinitis.
  • During your first visit with the physical therapist, be prepared to describe your symptoms in as much detail as possible, and say what makes your symptoms worse.

Further Reading

The American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) believes that consumers should have access to information that could help them make health care decisions and also prepare them for their visit with their health care provider.

The following articles provide some of the best scientific evidence related to physical therapy treatment of De Quervain’s tendinitis. The articles report recent research and give an overview of the standards of practice both in the United States and internationally. The article titles are linked either to a PubMed* abstract of the article or to free full text, so that you can read it or print out a copy to bring with you to your health care provider.

Ashurst JV, Turco DA, Lieb BE. Tenosynovitis caused by texting: an emerging disease. J Am Osteopath Assoc. 2010;110(5):294–296. Free Article.

Consensus on a Multidisciplinary Treatment Guideline for deQuervain Disease: Results From the European HANDGUIDE Study, Huisstede BMA, Coert JH, Friden J, Hoogvliet P. Physical Therapy 2014; 94:1095-1110.

Frontera WR, Silver JK, Rizzo TD Jr. Essentials of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation: Musculoskeletal Disorders, Pain, and Rehabilitation. 2nd ed. Philadelphia, PA: Saunders Elsevier Publishers; 2008:129-132.

De Quervain’s tendinitis: MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia. Accessed May 12, 2014.

*PubMed is a free online resource developed by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI). PubMed contains millions of citations to biomedical literature, including citations in the National Library of Medicine’s MEDLINE database.

Authored by Mary Kay Zane, PT, OCS. Reviewed by the editorial board.

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