What Are the Most Common Finger Injuries for Athletes?

finger injuries

Playing sports is a pastime that unites people from all walks of life, but it doesn’t come without risks. Sports injuries are a constant danger, affecting amateurs and professionals alike. And an impressive amount of those injuries, as high as 25%, affect the fingers and hands.

Impressive as it is, it makes sense that finger injuries are so common. With so many small bones and ligaments, tendons, and joints in the fingers and hands, they almost invite injury.

Hand and finger injuries can affect everyone from everyday people to musicians and athletes. No one is immune. So before your next sports game, you’d do well to familiarize yourself with some of the most common ways to get an injured finger, as well as what warning signs to look out for.

Overuse Finger Injuries

Probably the most common form of injuries to the fingers, hand, and wrist come from patterns of overuse. They tend to occur when a joint, tendon, or muscle is subject to long periods of repetitive motions.

This type of injury can happen to anyone, as it’s often associated with workplace injuries. The earliest record of it appears in the 17th century and mentions “Milkmaid’s Arm,”  a condition that affected dairy workers due to the strenuous, repetitive nature of their work. In modernity, factory line and desk workers alike are both subject to similar overuse injuries.

Outside of the workplace, you’re most likely to sustain an overuse injury playing sports or exercising. Again, repetitive, strenuous activity is the most common culprit.

If you played the board game Operation when you were young, you might remember “tennis elbow” being one of the fictional patient’s ailments. This colloquialism describes a real-life condition where the tendons in the elbow are overworked by performing strong, recurrent movements. It takes its name from the fact that avid tennis players are uniquely susceptible to it.

With their delicate arrangement of small bones, tendons, and muscles, the fingers are very vulnerable to this type of injury.

With strain injuries, prevention is better than a cure. But when prevention fails, here are some of the more common overuse injuries that athletes might experience.

Tendonitis in the Finger

Tendonitis is a condition that occurs when you repeatedly overexert or injure a tendon. It can affect any part of the body that is overused by repetitive motion. Drummers and other musicians, for example, may suffer tendonitis in the hands, wrists, or elbows.

Symptoms of tendonitis include pain, stiffness, and a burning sensation when the injured digit is used. You may also find a lump around the infected tendon or wholly swollen fingers. You might even notice a “snapping” or “cracking” sensation when you try to move the affected finger.

A doctor will diagnose the condition through examination. Sometimes an X-ray or an MRI is required to confirm the diagnosis.

Treatment depends on the severity of the injury.

Mild tendonitis can be treated at home. Self-care usually consists of rest, “buddy taping” the injured finger to the one next to it, and over-the-counter pain relievers.

Severe injuries, though, may require professional intervention. Physical therapy is a less invasive option that may help reverse the damage and promote natural healing. But in some cases, surgery may be necessary to correct the injury by hand.

Tenosynovitis

Tendon sheath inflammation, or tenosynovitis, is a condition that shares many symptoms with tendonitis. Around the tendon is a protective sheath known as the synovium. If the tendon is injured, the protective sheath may become inflamed.

Much like tendonitis, it tends to affect individuals who perform routine, repetitive motions. Athletes, gardeners, musicians, and desk workers are only a few potential candidates. You may be more at risk if you have underlying health conditions like diabetes and gout.

Tenosynovitis tends to manifest around the joints. Look for symptoms like joint stiffness, swelling, pain, and redness of the skin.

“Trigger finger” is a common form of tenosynovitis. This affects the tendons that flex the finger. Affected individuals may find it difficult to bend or straighten the digit.

Early signs of trigger finger include soreness around the base of the finger, a lump where the finger meets the palm, and clicking or snapping noises with movement. And if left untreated, trigger finger can progress. In severe cases, fingers or thumbs can become locked in a bent or straight position.

So if you experience any of these symptoms, see a doctor for an examination immediately.

Carpal Tunnel Syndrome

Carpal tunnel is a bit of an honorary mention on this list. It’s not a true ailment of the fingers, and instead affects the median nerve in the wrist. However, weakness, tingling, and discomfort of the fingers are common symptoms.

Contrary to the stereotype of carpal tunnel syndrome only affecting keyboard warriors, anyone with any activity level can be at risk. If you’ve suffered a wrist injury in the past, common among athletes, you may be at increased risk. And any activity that requires intense use of the hands, like wrestling or mixed martial arts, may cause the strain that leads to carpal tunnel.

Symptoms to watch for include weakness and tingling throughout the fingers, hands, and wrists. Many individuals will be compelled to “shake out” their hands to try to relieve persistent numbness and discomfort.

Without treatment, lasting muscle and nerve damage may occur. This can seriously impact your athletic prospects and quality of life, so speak to a hand and wrist specialist immediately if you experience symptoms.

Traumatic Finger Injuries

Whereas overuse injuries are caused by a pattern of use over time, traumatic injuries are caused by sudden damage to the fingers.

Athletes who engage in contact sports like wrestling, hockey, and football can expect to see more traumatic injuries. However, accidents can happen in any sport. So if you experience sudden, severe finger pain after a rough impact, one of the following injuries could be the cause.

Bruises

Because the fingers are so sensitive, a moderate bruise can cause significant pain and discomfort. You may even feel like your finger is broken, as bruises can sometimes be just as painful.

The difference is that with a simple bruise, there is little-to-no damage to the bone. The pain comes from damaged soft tissue, made worse by blood pooling up under the skin.

Symptoms may include pain, swelling, stiffness, discoloration, and loss of finger mobility. Because these symptoms are so similar to those of a broken finger, it’s always a good idea to have a doctor examine the injury. An X-ray is often the simplest way to confirm if a digit is broken or not.

Should your doctor confirm that it’s only a bruise, you can treat the injured finger at home.

Keeping a bruised digit elevated above heart level can help reduce the swelling. Applying ice can likewise bring down the swelling while helping to numb the pain. Above all else, try to limit the use of the finger by using a finger splint or buddy taping it to the nearest uninjured finger.

Dislocated Fingers

A dislocation occurs when a bone is removed from its proper position. As there are so many finger joints, the chances of this happening are quite high. In particular, the middle knuckle of the little, ring, middle, and index fingers tend to be vulnerable.

There are two main ways to dislocate a finger. One is when a “jamming” force on the end of the finger causes enough compression force to move it out of correct alignment. The other is when the finger is overextended, pulling it out of position.

It’s a common injury in sports like baseball, basketball, and football. Any activity where you need to catch a projectile moving at high speed carries the risk of having a fingertip struck, dislocating the digit. Sports that use a lot of padding also have the risk of a finger getting caught on the pads in the middle of a play, pulling the joint out of place.

And of course, athlete or not, anyone can take a bad fall and land on a finger in such a way as to dislocate it.

Unlike other finger injuries, dislocated digits tend to be obvious. Look for numbness or a tingling sensation, paleness in the affected region, or even a breach in the skin.

If you suspect a dislocated finger, you need to see a doctor right away. Delaying treatment may slow the healing process, or even result in permanent disability.

Ligament Injuries

Ligaments are a kind of soft tissue that connects the bones. And with so many small bones in the fingers and hands, there are a lot of ligaments responsible to bind them all into one unit.

Torn ligaments in the hands and fingers are common sporting injuries. The best-known of these is “skier’s thumb.”

It describes the kind of injury that occurs when you fall on an outstretched hand that also happens to be holding an object, like a skiing pole. The impact, combined with having a pole between the thumb and the finger, causes enough force to stretch or tear the ligaments in that part of the hand.

But that’s only one possible scenario. Depending on your sport of choice, you can have ample opportunities to overextend or rip the ligaments in your fingers.

Within hours of the injury, you can expect pain in the digit, swelling, the inability to grasp an object, and blue or black discoloration.

The prognosis depends on the extent of the injury. Mild cases where the ligament is only stretched may be treated at home. A doctor can advise you on a course of self-care.

If an examination determines that the ligament is torn, however, it is unlikely to heal on its own. Surgery may be necessary to prevent permanent disability.

Sprains

Sprains are injuries where a tendon is overstretched or torn. You’re probably familiar with sprained ankles, as they affect athletes and everyday people alike. But fingers have just as much potential for sprain injuries.

They’re usually caused by a direct impact on the finger. The force of the blow reverberates up the digit, stretching or treating the tendon. Sports like baseball and basketball are common ways to experience a strain.

A mild sprain will manifest in some mild pain and stiffness in the joint. This caliber of injury is treatable at home. At most, it requires rest and reduced movement.

A moderate finger sprain may involve damage to both the tendon and the joint capsule. Expect intense pain, instability of the joint, and swelling of the entire finger.

Severe sprains often involve a tendon tearing or rupturing completely. Symptoms may include full or partial dislocation of the finger, discoloration, and extreme pain and swelling.

Mild sprains tend to improve on their own in a matter of days, with moderate sprains healing within weeks. Severe sprains, however, may take months, often requiring surgery to repair the damaged tendon.

Broken Fingers

Wherever there are bones, you can experience fractures and breaks. And given how small the bones of the fingers are, they’re no exception.

Unlike other injuries, they tend to be easily noticed. You’ll experience sharp, severe pain immediately following the injury. Your finger may even be noticeably deformed.

Fractures can be trickier to diagnose. It’s not unusual to only experience a dull pain while retaining most of your range of movement.

Swelling and redness tend to set in 5-10 minutes after injury. The swelling will make the finger more difficult to move, and may even extend to adjacent fingers.

Like any broken bone, these injuries require medical attention. Even if you only have a fracture, care must be taken to avoid further damage.

Seeking Care for an Injured Finger

The good news is that the prognosis for most finger injuries is quite good. Even severe injuries like a broken finger tend to make complete recoveries in a matter of weeks or months.

However, a positive outcome is often contingent upon seeking prompt medical care.

Delaying treatment to see if an injury improves on its own can increase the risk of long-term complications. So if you cannot move a finger or are feeling pain of an unusual degree after a suspected injury, reach out to us for our comprehensive hand, wrist, and finger care.

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