Wrist Tendonitis: Symptoms, Diagnosis, Causes & Treatment

Wrist tendinitis is the inflammation of the tendons present in the wrist joint. It can cause symptoms such as pain, swelling and redness in the area, making it difficult to carry out movements with the hand joint and perform activities of daily living.

This type of tendonitis is normally caused by repetitive movements with the hands, and is common in people who write, paint, type or carry heavy weights for prolonged periods of time.

Treatment should be guided by a physiotherapist or orthopedic surgeon and may include the use of anti-inflammatories, joint immobilization and physiotherapy. In the most serious cases, surgery may be recommended.

Health care porfessional assessing woman's wrist range of motion

Main symptoms

The main symptoms of wrist tendonitis are:

  • Pain when moving the wrist
  • Slight swelling in the wrist area
  • Redness and increased temperature in the wrist
  • Difficulty moving the hand
  • Feeling of weakness in the hand

Additionally, some people may also feel report a crushing feeling in the wrist.

When  the tendon located at the base of the thumb is specifically affected, this inflammation is called de Quervain's tenosynovitis. This condition presents with similar symptoms, as well as an accumulation of fluid around the tendon.

It is important to consult an orthopedic surgeon whenever symptoms of tendonitis appear in the wrist, so that they can be assessed and treated.

Confirming a diagnosis

Wrist tendonitis is diagnosed by an orthopedist, who will first assess the presenting symptoms and evaluate the person's health history. This is then followed by a physical examination to determine strength, range of motion and sensory impairments. 

The doctor may order further testing to help reach a diagnosis, such as an X-ray or MRI. These can help to identify whether there is any calcification in the tendon, which can influence treatment.

Possible causes

Wrist tendonitis is classified as a repetitive strain injury (RSI), which means it occurs due to repetitive movement of the joint. This can happen with several situations like:  

  • Excessive use of thumbs and arms
  • Writing
  • Hold a baby on your lap with the thumbs facing down
  • Painting
  • Fishing
  • Typing
  • Sewing
  • Strength training exercises that involve the wrist joint
  • Playing a musical instrument for many hours at a time

Tendinitis can also occur due to great effort on the muscles involved, such as holding something very heavy, such as a shopping bag with just one hand, for a long period of time.

Treatment options

Treatment for wrist tendonitis should be monitored by an orthopedic surgery, and can vary depending on how severe the inflammation is.

The main treatment approaches your doctor may recommend include:

1. Rest

Resting the wrist joint may be recommended by your doctor to help reduce inflammation and prevent symptoms from worsening.

Therefore, activities that worsen symptoms should be avoided, such as avoiding repetitive movements with the hand and avoiding carrying heavy weights.

2. Cold compresses

Applying cold compresses on the wrist helps to reduce pain and swelling by decreasing the inflammatory process in the tendons.

To make a cold compress you can wrap a bag of ice in a tea towel or use a gel bag from the freezer and apply to the affected area. Leave this on the wrist for 15 to 20 minutes, 2 to 3 times per day.

3. Immobilization

Immobilization of the wrist may also be indicated, as this way the joint is not used, which helps to improve inflammation and reduce symptoms.

4. Physiotherapy

Physiotherapy can be prescribed by a doctor and carried out by a physiotherapist. It involves stretching and muscle strengthening exercises that help to reduce inflammation.

It may be useful to do also squeeze a soft ball or modeling clay in 3 sets of 20 repetitions. The physiotherapist may also use joint mobilization techniques and tape to immobilize the tendon.

The physiotherapist can use devices, such as a TENS machine, ultrasound, laser or galvanic current, to reduce swelling and pain, and to speed-up recovery.

5. Medication

Anti-inflammatories or analgesics, such as ibuprofen, naproxen or acetaminophen, may be prescribed by your doctor to reduce inflammation in the tendon and relieve pain.

In addition, anti-inflammatory ointments, such as diclofenac, or even corticosteroid injections into the tendon may also be recommended to quickly relieve symptoms.

6. Surgery

Surgery for wrist tendonitis can be performed by an orthopedic surgeon when other treatments have not been effective.

It is usually necessary to undergo physiotherapy sessions after surgery to speed up recovery, reduce pain, and to regain strength and  movement.

Home treatment

A great home treatment for wrist tendonitis is to start by placing an ice pack on your wrist for 20 minutes. After this time, the region will be numb and it will be easier to perform the following stretch:

  1. Stretch your arm with your palm facing up;
  2. With the help of the other hand, stretch your fingers backwards, towards the floor, keeping your arm straight;
  3. Hold the position for 1 minute and rest 30 seconds.

It is recommended to do this exercise 3 times in a row in the morning and evening to increase the flexibility of the muscles and tendons and improve oxygenation in the affected structures, bringing relief from symptoms.