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This article will review the symptoms, causes, and management of a jammed finger. Symptoms include pain, swelling, redness, impaired function and mobility, and deformity of the finger affected.
What is a jammed finger?
A jammed finger is a painful injury to the ligaments and bones that make up the proximal interphalangeal (PIP) joint. Our fingers have three joints, the metacarpal phalangeal joint (MCP or “knuckle joint”), between the base of the finger and the hand, the distal interphalangeal joint (DIP) towards the tip of the finger, and between those two lies the proximal interphalangeal joint (PIP).
Symptoms include pain, swelling, redness, impaired function and mobility, and deformity of the finger affected. With treatment, symptoms should resolve after a couple of months.
Treatment options include rest and ice, immobilization through a splint or buddy taping, physical therapy, and rarely, surgery.
You should visit a physician or urgent care center in the next day. Generally, surgery is not required and splinting is sufficient.
Jammed finger symptoms
The primary symptoms of a jammed finger include the following.
- Pain: Jammed fingers can initially be as painful as a broken finger, especially when moved from side to side or on direct contact.
- Swelling: The affected joint quickly becomes swollen. Swelling can persist for months.
- Redness: This also commonly occurs in painful and swollen areas.
- Impaired function and mobility: In some cases, the finger may look normal and function normally. In others, swelling may reduce the ability to bend the finger. The finger may temporarily become bad at gripping.
- Deformed finger: Less commonly, if the finger becomes dislocated, it may appear completely bent out of shape. If this occurs, prompt medical attention should be sought.
Further details regarding symptoms may include the following.
- Pain and function: These typically greatly improve within a couple of months.
- Swelling and redness: Some swelling and redness can last for several few months and, in some cases, up to a year after the initial injury. If you have injured a ring finger, it is advised to wait one year before having a ring resized, as the size of the finger may continue changing throughout recovery.
- For severely jammed fingers: In people with severe injuries that require surgery, recovery after surgery typically requires up to four months. Some people may experience long-term pain, joint instability, or loss of function.
Causes of a jammed finger
Most of us use our hands all day, in various activities, exposing them to various possible injuries. Most causes of a jammed finger are trauma-related, such as the following.
- Fingertip cause: The tip of the finger may be pushed directly towards the hand (axial loading) or stressed in another direction.
- Ligament sprain: Ligaments are tough, fibrous tissues that connect two bones to hold a joint in place. They may become stretched and develop small tears (becoming sprained). Damage to a ligament initiates an inflammatory process to repair the injury, resulting in pain and swelling.
- Ligament tear: In more severe cases, the ligaments can tear entirely.
- Fractures or dislocations: These injuries damage finger bones directly.
Who is most often affected
Jammed fingers can affect anybody, but are especially common among:
- Athletes: Such as those who play ball-catching sports, such as basketball, football, and baseball
- Mountain climbers
Treatment options and prevention for jammed finger
For mild to moderate injuries, you can try the following treatment options at home. However, if your symptoms worsen or persist, you should seek care promptly in order to limit the chance of long-term damage or immobility.
- Careful return to activity: Some early activity is typically advisable in mild to moderate injuries, to prevent the joint from becoming stiff. However, it is best to avoid strenuous activities, such as ball sports or manual labor, which may further injure the finger, until it has been able to heal. In severe injuries, a longer rest period may be advised.
- Ice packs: Icing the affected joint 10 to 20 minutes, two to four times per day can help relieve pain.
- Pain-relievers: Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) and naproxen (Aleve), or acetaminophen (Tylenol) are effective in reducing the pain associated with a jammed finger.
The finger may be held in place for two to six weeks to stabilize the injured joint while it is healing and prevent further injury. The most common methods of immobilization for a jammed finger are:
- Splinting: Splints usually consist of padding and solid material that extends the length of the finger but does not fully encircle it, held in place by an elastic bandage. It allows for swelling and can be temporarily removed to inspect the injury site.
- Buddy strapping: This is also known as buddy wrapping or buddy taping. Since finger joints are conveniently next to other fingers, an injured finger can be strapped to a non-injured one to help stabilize the injured finger. The two fingers are usually taped together, above and below the injured joint, with a foam pad between them. This allows the fingers to bend together, but limits side-to-side movement.
Physical therapy and surgery
- Hand therapy: Physical or occupational therapists can provide you with exercises to help the finger regain strength and prevent the finger from becoming stiff. These exercises are typically started several weeks after the injury, once the finger has started to heal.
- Hand surgery: Surgery is typically not required for finger injuries. However, if the finger is broken or a severe ligament injury fails to heal, surgery may be necessary to enable long-term recovery.
When to seek further consultation for jammed finger
If pain does not improve
Not every jammed finger requires medical evaluation. However, if your finger is painful enough to require pain medication multiple times per day for more than a few days or the pain does not start to improve within a week, discuss the situation with your physician. This could indicate a more severe injury.
If you experience numbness, point tenderness, or dislocation
Although jammed fingers sometimes will heal at home with mild supportive treatments and time, certain symptoms suggest that a more severe injury, such as a fracture or dislocation, could have occurred. If one particular point on the finger is especially painful to touch or it is too painful to move the joint, a fracture may have occurred. Furthermore, numbness may indicate nerve damage. Deformity of the finger suggests a possible finger joint dislocation. If you experience any of these symptoms, seek medical evaluation in order to better define the injury, prevent further damage to the hand, and access the most appropriate treatment.
If you cannot move the joint
Although most cases of jammed finger improve without invasive treatment, if you can’t straighten the finger, you should see your physician for further evaluation and possible referral to a surgeon.
If a jammed finger occurs in a child
Although jammed fingers in adults often do not require medical attention, a jammed finger in a child should be seen by a physician because it may involve the growth plate (the area where new bone develops) and negatively alter the future growth of the finger.
If the injured finger interferes with your ability to work and do other regular tasks
If your finger injury interferes with your daily life, talk to your physician about your limitations. Physical or occupational therapy may be available to help you learn how to compensate for the injury and exercises to rebuild strength.
Questions your doctor may ask to determine jammed finger
- Where exactly is your hand pain?
- Where on your finger is the pain worst?
- How would you describe what happened to your finger?
- How severe is your finger pain?
- Do any of your fingers appear crooked or bent out of shape?
Dr. Becker is a psychiatry resident at the Mount Sinai Hospital. He received his undergraduate degree in Urban & Regional Studies from Cornell University (2012) and completed his medical degree at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania (2018). Prior to medical school, he worked as a pre-medical teaching assistant at Weill Cornell Medicine-Qatar, where he received an Excellence in Teaching Award. His research has focused on global health (including explanatory models of mental illness in Botswana, epidemiology of head trauma, and psychosocial aspects of HIV), adolescent and young adult mental health, and quality improvement. He enjoys communicating health-related science through writing and teaching and joined Buoy Health as a writer in 2018. In his free time he enjoys running, hiking, and exploring new places.
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