The most common cause of tendon inflammation (tenosynovitis or tendonitis) is over use of the affected tendon. Rest of the affected tendon is all that is required in some cases. Other treatments such as anti-inflammatory drugs or steroids injection are sometimes needed. Infection of a tendon is an uncommon cause but needs treatment with antibiotics if it occurs.

What is tenosynovitis and tendonitis?

  • Tendonitis means inflammation of a tendon.
  • Tenosynovitis means inflammation of the sheath that surrounds a tendon (the sheath is called the synovium).

What are tendons and tendon sheaths?

A tendon is a strong tissue that attaches a muscle to a bone. For example, the tendons that you can see on the back of your hand come from muscles in the forearm and move the finger bones. Some (but not all) tendons are covered by a sheath called the synovium. The fluid helps the tendon to move freely and smoothly when it pulls on the bone it is attached to.

What are the symptoms of tendonitis and tenosynovitis?

The main symptoms are pain, tenderness and swelling of the affected part of the tendon. The overlying skin may be warm. You may have to reduced movement to the part of the body that is pulled by the inflamed tendon. In some cases the inflammation lasts just a few days and then goes away on it’s own. In some cases it can last for weeks months if not treated.

Any tendon of the body may be affected. However, some areas of the body are more prone to theses problems. For example, tendons over the wrist and hand are the most commonly affected. Some types of tendonitis and tenosynovitis can cause very characteristic symptoms and have their own name.

  • De Quervain tenosynovitis. This is a common condition that affects the tendons that are used to straighten (extend) the thumb. The typical early symptom is pain over the wrist at the base of the thumb that is made worse by activity and eased by rest.
  • Trigger finger. This most commonly affects the ring finger. The inflammation in a tendon sheath prevents the finger from straightening.
  • Achilles tendonitis. This affects the large tendon just behind and above the heel.
  • Rotator cuff tendonitis. The rotator cuff is a group of four muscles that help to lift and rotate your shoulder. The tendons from these muscles sometimes become inflamed.

What is the cause of tendonitis and tenosynovitis?

  • Unknown. Many cases seem to occur for no apparent reason.
  • Overuse of a tendon. Is the most common known cause. Tenosynovitis commonly occurs around the wrist. Overuse by lots of writing (writers cramp), typing, assembly line work, etc, can trigger inflammation.
  • Arthritis. Can sometimes include inflammation of the tendon sheaths as well as the joints. You would normally have joint pain and swelling in addition to tendon problems.
  • Infection. Is a rare cause. The infection may occur because a cut or puncture wound to the skin over a tendon may allow bacteria to get in to infect the tendon and/or  tendon sheath. However, infection sometimes spreads from other parts of the body via the bloodstream to infect a  tendon sheath. For example, a small number of people who have gonorrhoea (a sexually transmitted infection) develop infected tenosynovitis as a complaint.

Can tenosynovitis or tendonitis be prevented?

There is no proof that anything can prevent a bout of tenosynovitis or tendonitis. However, the following are sensible suggestions that may help to prevent a recurrence.

  • Avoid repetitive motion and overuse of the affected area. This may be very difficult if your job involves repetitive movements. If it is a recurring problem then you should discuss this with your employer. A change of duties may help.
  • Exercise to strengthen the muscles around the affected tendon may help. It may be best to seek advice from a physiotherapist to find the best exercises to use.

Do I need any tests?

Usually not. The diagnosis of tenosynovitis and tendonitis can usually be made by a doctor who examines you. If an infection is the suspected cause (uncommon) then blood tests may be done to find the cause of the infection.

What is the treatment?

  • Rest. It is important to allow the inflammation to settle. Sometimes a splint, firm bandage or brace is put on the wrist if this is the area affected. This enforces the hands and wrist to stay in the same position for a time to allow rest of the affected tendon.
  • Ice packs over the affected area may ease swelling and pain.
  • Anti-inflammatory painkillers are often prescribed (for example, ibuprofen). These ease  pain and reduce inflammation.
  • Physiotherapy may be advised, especially if the condition is not settling with the above measures.
  • A steroid injection into the site of inflammation may be given if the above measures do not work. Steroids work by reducing inflammation. It is usually effective.
  • Surgical release of a tendon is rarely needed.
  • Antibiotics are needed in the uncommon situation where infection is the cause.