This type of pain is common in new mothers

This type of pain is common in new mothers

Once pregnancy is over, the care of the beautiful, new baby often consumes the days and nights of a new mother. And while the aches and pains associated with pregnancy may have waned, I frequently see women complaining of pain and tingling in their wrist or hand that evolves in the early weeks following delivery, which can put a very real damper on the time at home with the baby.

The body does not get a free pass when it comes to pregnancy. A hormone called relaxin is produced beginning in about the sixth week of pregnancy, and it continues to be produced until after delivery. Relaxin serves to relax the ligaments that constrain the pelvis – ultimately providing for that extra stretch that will accommodate the growth and delivery of the baby. A significant amount of additional blood volume is manufactured to provide nourishment for the growing fetus, and that additional volume and related shifting of fluids accounts for the swelling in feet and hands that plague many pregnant women. Add to this mixture the fluctuation of hormones associated with pregnancy and delivery.

While these changes begin to resolve at the time of delivery, there are several months before the body returns to an approximation of its original state. It is during those early months of motherhood I regularly have women come to the office seeking help for a painful wrist or hand.

A very common complaint is pain in the wrist and numbness/tingling in the thumb, index and middle fingers. My patients will often say that the pain is worse at night – waking them from sleep or depriving them of the precious little sleep that they’re able to get as a new parent. The pain can be from Carpal tunnel syndrome, a swelling of the band-like structure at the wrist that covers the median nerve. Carpal tunnel is a condition in which the additional body fluid associated with pregnancy compresses the nerve that provides sensation to the thumb, index, middle finger and half of the fourth. Symptoms can occur when the hand is in one place for a long period of time and in a flexed position – such as when carrying an infant.

Early on, symptoms can often be relieved with simple treatments like wearing a wrist splint. While anti-inflammatories like Ibuprofen can be helpful in relieving pain and reducing swelling, many of the patients I see are breastfeeding and unable to use these medications. If left untreated, carpal tunnel can result in permanent numbness and weakness in the hand. Fortunately, for most women who experience this condition during or after pregnancy, the situation resolves as body fluids and hormones return to a pre-pregnancy state. Sometimes my patients will continue to have symptoms despite use of a splint and the passage of time. In those patients, I may offer a cortisone injection into the wrist to deliver the medication directly to the inflamed, swollen tissue that is compressing the nerve.

Another variation on wrist pain in women who are pregnant or who have recently delivered is something called De Quervain’s tenosynovitis. It refers to tendons around the base of the thumb that are irritated or compressed due to swelling associated with pregnancy-related fluid, hormone changes or overuse associated with childcare – such as cradling the infant in one arm while using the other hand to accomplish the many “one-handed” tasks that mothers seem to find a way to do. My patients will usually complain that they have pain in the wrist with movement of their thumb, and they become acutely aware of how much they use their opposable thumb. Treatment closely mirrors that provided for carpal tunnel with the use of a splint that immobilizes not only the wrist, but the thumb, as well.

The birth of a child is a time for celebration, so wrist pain can come as an unwelcome surprise. But simple, conservative treatment is available and can return the mother to caring for her child pain-free. Whoever thought that “rocking the cradle” could be orthopedically hazardous?

Dr. Gregory Caronis is a board-certified Lake County surgeon with Advocate Medical Group Orthopedics and Advocate Condell Medical Center. A specialist in disorders of the foot and ankle and fracture care, Dr. Caronis sees patients in Lincolnshire and Libertyville.

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  1. Great article. Thanks for providing this information in such detail, and also for keeping it easy to understand. I appreciate it!

  2. I am surprised that this article does not take into account whether the women experiencing this pain had epidurals during their deliveries. The nerve damage mentioned sounds like a result of that and not a result of hormones. I have severe back, leg and arm damage as a result of a botched epidural administered for abdominal surgery and that is pain that is apparently untreatable.

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About the Author

Dr. Gregory Caronis
Dr. Gregory Caronis

Gregory Caronis, M.D., MBA is Chairman of Surgery at Advocate Condell Medical Center and a board-certified orthopedic surgeon with Advocate Medical Group Orthopedics. A specialist in disorders of the foot. ankle and fracture/orthopedic trauma care, Dr. Caronis also practices general orthopedics. He sees patients in Libertyville and Gurnee – to schedule an appointment call AMG Orthopedics at (847) 634-1766.