Wrist Tendinitis: Signs You Have It and How to Treat It, According to Physical Therapists
Learn about wrist tendinitis and possible causes. Get tips to manage pain from wrist tendinitis and simple exercises from physical therapists to feel better.
Think you might have wrist tendinitis (tendonitis)? This condition can make it hard to type on a keyboard, open a jar, or pour a cup of coffee in the morning. While wrist pain can derail your daily routine and activities, wrist tendinitis isn’t something you need to just live with. There’s a lot you can do to reduce your pain, starting with exercise therapy for your hands and wrists and activity modifications to make it easier to do things that irritate your wrists. This combination can make a big difference when it comes to managing wrist tendinitis.
Many Hinge Health members report that targeted wrist and arm exercises help to relieve pain and allow them to get back to their usual busy lives. One member recently shared that their “wrist pain upon waking up in the morning seems to have stopped.” Another told us that, after weeks of doing wrist exercises, they realized that they’re now able to carry their 64-ounce water bottle. “I usually cannot carry it when it is full with my left wrist, but last week, I did. That was actually a big deal to me!”
Here, learn more about what wrist tendinitis is, what causes it, and what treatments and exercises our physical therapists recommend to start feeling better.
Our Hinge Health Experts
Dr. Heather Broach, PT, DPT
Jonathan Lee, MD, MBA
Dylan Peterson, PT, DPT
What Is Wrist Tendinitis?
Wrist tendinitis simply means that there is inflammation of your wrist tendons. These are small rope-like structures that connect your fingers to the back of your hand. You have six of them in each hand, and they help you control your wrist, hand, and fingers. “You can view your hands as the keys of a piano, and your wrist tendons as the piano strings,” says Heather Broach, PT, DPT, a physical therapist at Hinge Health.
There are several different types of wrist tendinitis, including:
De Quervain’s tendinitis, which develops on the thumb side of your wrist.
Ulnar tendinitis, which is irritation of the tendons on the pinkie side of your hand.
Tenosynovitis, which is an irritation of the tendon sheath that covers some of the tendons that cross your wrist and hand.
Intersection syndrome, which is inflammation of the tendons in the wrist and back of the forearm that occurs where certain tendons that move the fingers cross over one another.
What Are the Symptoms of Wrist Tendinitis?
There are a few signs your wrist pain could be related to tendinitis. You might have:
Pain where your arm meets your hand (it may also go up into your elbow)
Pain on the thumb side of your wrist or on the little-finger side of your wrist
Pain that only happens when your wrist is under strain, like when you’re carrying something heavy
Pain when you put pressure on your hand
Tenderness when you touch the area
These types of wrist symptoms may make you wonder if you have wrist tendinitis or something else, like carpal tunnel or wrist arthritis. Carpal tunnel occurs when the median nerve in your wrist becomes pinched, which can lead to numbness and tingling throughout your hand. “But tendinitis itself can cause carpal tunnel, because tendon swelling can put pressure on that nerve,” explains Dr. Broach. Arthritis is a condition in which the joints in the wrist experience changes that cause pain and stiffness.
The reality is that the treatment of most wrist pain is very similar, says Dr. Broach. It involves exercises to promote flexibility, range of motion, and strength in the wrist, arms, and hands along with slight — often temporary — modifications to activities that cause your pain to flare up.
What Causes Wrist Tendinitis?
Many different issues can contribute to wrist pain from tendinitis, but these are among the most common:
Going beyond your ‘movement sweet spot.’ Sometimes wrist pain can occur because you did a little more activity than what your body could handle. It’s often a gradual onset, related to activity that you don’t normally do — “for example, spending the weekend cleaning out your house,” says Dr. Broach. “It can also happen if there’s a big change in frequency and duration of activity — for example, a house painter who normally only paints two to three houses a month and suddenly does 10 might experience wrist tendinitis.” Another common cause: being new to parenthood. Lifting or holding a newborn for several hours a day can contribute to tendinitis for many people.
Texting and phone habits. “Physical therapists’ offices exploded with patients with wrist tendinitis after texting became commonplace,” says Dr. Broach. It makes sense — all that swiping, scrolling, and grasping of your phone can strain your wrist tendons. This can be more of an issue for people who don’t do resistance training as much. “When you exercise, you lift weights and hold onto objects, which helps to balance out all that swiping,” adds Dr. Broach.
Repetitive tasks. If you do the same activity that involves your wrist over and over, you can develop wrist tendinitis. “I developed it early in my PT career when I was a technician who had to constantly spray down tables,” recalls Dr. Broach. “I was constantly lifting my thumb and pressing down on the spray bottle, which caused strain.” Being aware of “trigger” tasks and doing stretches throughout your day to counterbalance them can make a big difference.
Underlying health conditions. Research has found an association between type 2 diabetes and an increased risk of tendinitis. “It may be that diabetes causes inflammation in the body that raises risk of tendinitis,” says Dr. Broach. Other research suggests a link between heart disease and tendinitis because cholesterol deposits may cause tendon inflammation. Rheumatoid arthritis also raises the risk of wrist tendinitis.
Treatment for Wrist Tendinitis
Most of the time, wrist tendinitis can be managed with simple at-home treatments, reassures Dr.
Heat. “Often, people will reach for ice when they have wrist tendinitis, but I usually opt for heat because it increases blood flow to the area, which helps healing.” That said, Hinge Health physical therapists recommend you use whichever feels more comfortable to you.
Over-the-counter (OTC) medication. Pain relievers such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), naproxen (Aleve), and acetaminophen (Tylenol) can be helpful for wrist tendinitis. It’s important to make sure that you are safely able to take these medications, based on your medical history.
Adjust your activities. If a certain task irritates your wrist, you can usually find a gentler workaround. For example, if using your phone to text or scroll on social media is causing wrist pain, Dr. Broach suggests you set the phone down on a table or in your lap instead of holding it. You may not need to avoid aggravating activities altogether — gently putting your wrist through a variety of motions can actually help healing. But it can help to modify activities that cause an unacceptable uptick in pain.
Adjust your workouts. You may be tempted to avoid exercising during a pain flare, but our physical therapists encourage the opposite. Movement is medicine, and simple modifications can help you continue to stay active with less pain. "If something hurts, try to find another activity you are able to do that doesn't aggravate the issue,” suggests Dr. Broach. Walking, biking, running and other lower body workouts can be great options. For upper body work, small changes can make a big difference. For instance, changing the way you grip dumbbells or resistance bands by bringing your thumb next to your index finger instead of wrapping it over your fingers to create a closed grip can make them easier to use.
In addition to modifying your usual activities, targeted, therapeutic exercises can make a big difference.
Do wrist stretches and exercises. Exercises that make you use your hands in different ways can help counter-balance strain from your usual routine, says Dr. Broach. See some suggested exercises below.
Consider physical therapy. If your wrist pain isn’t getting better or the symptoms keep coming back, it’s a good idea to try physical therapy.
Why physical therapy (PT) and not occupational therapy (OT)? “OT is better for neuromuscular or fine motor coordination for specific tasks — for example, if you have trouble picking up a cup or using a hair tie,” says Dr. Broach. A physical therapist can work with you on the following:
Pain management. A PT can show you how to adjust movements that cause you pain, including workplace modifications.
Wrist stretches. These help to relax tight tendons and get your wrist moving.
Range-of-motion exercises to help reduce stiffness.
Strengthening exercises for your entire arm, including your shoulder and elbow, to relieve pressure on your wrist.
Functional training. A PT can show you how to better perform functional movements, like typing on a computer or swinging a tennis racquet, so you can do these activities with less pain.
You can see a physical therapist in person or use a program like Hinge Health to access a PT via telehealth/video visit.
Exercises for Wrist Tendinitis
Hinge Health physical therapists often recommend these exercises for people who are dealing with wrist pain and wrist tendinitis. Regular wrist exercises and stretches won’t just treat tendinitis — they can also help prevent the condition from recurring.
The information contained in these videos is intended to be used for educational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice or treatment for any specific condition. Hinge Health is not your healthcare provider and is not responsible for any injury sustained or exacerbated by your use of or participation in these exercises. Please consult with your healthcare provider with any questions you may have about your medical condition or treatment.
PT Tip: Do Mini Body Check-Ins
If you have wrist tendinitis, or are prone to it, it may help to do a quick check of how you use your wrists on a daily basis, advises Dr. Broach. “Ask yourself, ‘does this bother my wrists, or is it okay?’” If it hurts, it doesn’t mean that you have to avoid that activity altogether. Rather, share this with your physical therapist, who can suggest different ways to do your normal routines without contributing to your worst pain. “Sometimes we can just adjust the width of a cup of another object you need to hold and get really nice results,” says Dr. Broach.
How Hinge Health Can Help You
If you have joint or muscle pain that makes it hard to move, you can get the relief you’ve been looking for with Hinge Health’s online exercise therapy program.
The best part: You don’t have to leave your home because our program is digital. That means you can easily get the care you need through our app, when and where it works for you.
Through our program, you’ll have access to therapeutic exercises and stretches for your condition. Additionally, you’ll have a personal care team to guide, support, and tailor our program to you.
See if you qualify for Hinge Health and confirm free coverage through your employer or benefit plan here.
This article and its contents are provided for educational and informational purposes only and do not constitute medical advice or professional services specific to you or your medical condition.
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Baskerville, R., McCartney, D. E., McCartney, S. M., Dawes, H., & Tan, G. D. (2018). Tendinopathy in type 2 diabetes: a condition between specialties? The British Journal of General Practice, 68(677), 593–594. doi:10.3399/bjgp18X700169
Tilley, B. J., Cook, J. L., Docking, S. I., & Gaida, J. E. (2015). Is higher serum cholesterol associated with altered tendon structure or tendon pain? A systematic review. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 49(23), 1504–1509. doi:10.1136/bjsports-2015-095100
Mohammed, R. H., Goyal, A., & Bansal, P. (2020). Hand and Wrist Rheumatoid Arthritis. PubMed; StatPearls Publishing. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK560890/