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Swollen fingers are usually caused by a build-up of fluid, which can occur from a nail infection, injury to the hand, or inflammatory disease like arthritis.
8 most common causes
Swollen finger symptoms
Swelling is the result of fluid buildup that gets trapped in your body's tissues. Most people first notice swelling because the affected body part may appear larger than normal. Often, a swollen finger can be easily identified by comparing its size to the size of your other fingers; however, sometimes the swelling may not be visibly obvious and difficult to discern. Often people with a swollen finger also experience other symptoms in addition to the swelling.
Other symptoms you may have
If you're experiencing a swollen finger, it's also likely to experience:
- Stretched or shiny skin
- Skin pitting: Skin that dimples or pits after pressing on the affected area for a few seconds.
- Stiffness or limited range of motion
- Warmth or redness of the affected area
If you notice any of these swollen finger symptoms, make an appointment with your doctor promptly in order to follow-up on your symptoms, get a diagnosis and receive appropriate care.
What causes swollen fingers?
Any condition that causes accumulation of fluid in the tissues of your finger will cause swelling. Swelling can occur throughout the body due to a variety of causes but swelling in just one finger has a more limited number of triggers. A swollen finger may not seem serious initially, but without prompt medical follow-up and care your symptoms could become worse.
Your finger may be swelling due to inflammatory causes, such as the following.
- Rheumatologic: This category includes inflammatory conditions involving the body's tissues and joints. Conditions such as arthritis and gout cause inflammation that easily brings fluid into the tissues leading to swelling, redness, and tenderness of single fingers and often the big toe.
- Infection: Bacteria that are always present on the skin can easily get into the finger via a cut, bite, or other puncture. As the body tries to fight off the bacteria, it sends fluids to the area, causing inflammation and swelling. Viral infections can also cause swelling of the finger in people with jobs that require exposure of the finger to body parts such as the mouth (dentists, nurses, healthcare professionals). This condition is known as herpetic whitlow.
- Trauma: An acute traumatic injury, such as falling directly onto your outstretched finger, jamming it, getting it slammed in a car door, or struck by a hammer, can cause bruising, a broken bone, or dislocation. Any of these can cause swelling.
- Sports injuries: These can cause strain, fracture, or dislocation of the finger. A common injury is mallet finger, caused by a ball smashing directly into the end of the finger. This can forcibly bend the first joint downward and injure the tendon so that the fingertip is left swollen and pointing downward.
- Repetitive strain injury or overuse: This can occur from manual labor, or even typing can cause tendinitis of the finger with resultant pain and swelling.
- Weather: Sometimes extremely cold or hot weather can trigger swelling in people with pre-existing conditions such as Raynaud's syndrome. Observe for any patterns in your finger swelling and tell your doctor in order to investigate an underlying condition.
Non-serious finger injury
Finger injuries are very common & rarely need medical treatment.
Top Symptoms: recent finger injury, finger pain from an injury, swollen finger, severe finger pain
Symptoms that always occur with non-serious finger injury: recent finger injury
Symptoms that never occur with non-serious finger injury: bent or crooked finger
A dislocated finger is the result of one of the bones in the finger being pulled apart or sideways out of alignment. Finger dislocations usually occur when the finger is bent too far backward. Although a common injury, finger dislocations that are not treated properly can result in chronic pain, stiffness, poor function, and deformity.
A dislocated finger is usually painful, swollen, red, visibly crooked, may be numb or tingling, and may be difficult to move.
Nail infection (paronychia)
Paronychia is an infection of the skin of the fingers or toes, at the place where the skin folds down to meet the nail.
Acute, or sudden onset, paronychia is caused by the staphylococcus bacteria. The organism can gain entry if the nail is cracked, broken, bitten, or trimmed too closely.
Chronic, or ongoing, paronychia is caused by a fungus. Anyone whose work requires their hands to be wet much of the time is susceptible.
People with diabetes or a weakened immune system are more susceptible to nail infections.
Symptoms include sore, reddened, swollen skin around the nail, sometimes with pus collecting under the skin.
Diagnosis is made through physical examination and sometimes skin culture to identify the organism involved.
Treatment for acute paronychia involves having a medical provider clean the wounded nail and drain any infection, and sometimes provide a course of antibiotics.
Treatment for the chronic form involves keeping the skin dry and using an antifungal medication on the affected nail.
Top Symptoms: spontaneous finger pain, fingernail pain, fingernail swelling
Urgency: Phone call or in-person visit
Cellulitis is a bacterial infection of the deep layers of the skin. It can appear anywhere on the body but is most common on the feet, lower legs, and face.
The condition can develop if Staphylococcus bacteria enter broken skin through a cut, scrape, or existing skin infection such as impetigo or eczema.
Most susceptible are those with a weakened immune system, as from corticosteroids or chemotherapy, or with impaired circulation from diabetes or any vascular disease.
Symptoms arise somewhat gradually and include sore, reddened skin.
If not treated, the infection can become severe, form pus, and destroy the tissue around it. In rare cases, the infection can cause blood poisoning or meningitis.
Symptoms of severe pain, fever, cold sweats, and fast heartbeat should be seen immediately by a medical provider.
Diagnosis is made through physical examination.
Treatment consists of antibiotics, keeping the wound clean, and sometimes surgery to remove any dead tissue. Cellulitis often recurs, so it is important to treat any underlying conditions and improve the immune system with rest and good nutrition.
Top Symptoms: fever, chills, facial redness, swollen face, face pain
Symptoms that always occur with cellulitis: facial redness, area of skin redness
Urgency: Primary care doctor
Dupuytren Disease, also known as Dupuytren's contracture, is a condition that gradually causes connective tissue (fascia) under the skin of the palm to thicken and become scar-like. Although Dupuytren's isn't painful, it does restrict movement. The thickened tissue forces several fingers - usually the ring and pinky fingers - to curl in toward the palm.
Top Symptoms: finger joint stiffness, hand bump, thickened skin on the finger, swollen hands, hand injury
Urgency: Primary care doctor
Psoriatic arthritis is a condition that causes inflammation of the joints. It usually starts between the ages of 30 and 50 years and occurs after having symptoms of psoriasis, which looks like a red, scaly rash (psoriasis). Joint inflammation can lead to severe arthritis unless diagnosed and treated early.
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disease—a type of illness where the immune system attacks healthy cells by mistake. If you have RA, your immune system can target and destroy the healthy tissues that cover your joints.
Boxer's fracture is a term for a fracture of one of the fingers and generally occurs after a closed fist makes contact with a hard object.
Top Symptoms: finger pain, swollen finger, finger bruise, punched a hard object
Symptoms that always occur with boxer's fracture: finger pain, swollen finger, punched a hard object
Urgency: In-person visit
When are swollen fingers dangerous?
When to see a doctor for a swollen finger
If your swollen finger symptoms persist for a prolonged period and worsen despite not seeming related to a traumatic event, make an appointment with your doctor. Depending on the swollen finger cause your doctor may initiate:
- Antibiotics: Your doctor will prescribe antibiotics if your swollen finger symptoms are due to a bacterial infection.
- Rheumatologic medications: There are several types of medications that combat rheumatologic conditions that may be causing your swollen finger. Talk to your doctor to discuss and come to an agreement about the best type of treatment.
When a swollen finger is an emergency
You should seek medical care immediately if:
- Your finger appears deformed
- You cannot straighten your finger
- The area becomes hot and inflamed and you develop a fever.
- Swelling and pain increases significantly and persists
- The finger becomes numb and turns white or pink
These symptoms may be related to a more serious cause such as a broken finger resulting in decreased blood flow to the finger and/or hand.
At-home treatments for a swollen finger
If you notice a swollen finger after an injury or trauma such as jamming or hitting your finger, start with the following treatments:
- Rest, ice, and elevate: Put an ice pack on your finger or place your finger in ice water every 15 minutes. (Except for possible Raynaud's Syndrome, see above). Maintain your finger elevated and still to minimize further irritation and prevent continued fluid accumulation in your tissues.
- Protect: If the pain and swelling persists, you can protect the affected finger from further trauma by attaching it to an adjacent finger using tape or a self-adhesive wrap . The affected finger will be less likely to move which prevents further inflammation and fluid accumulation.
Swollen fingers FAQs
Can exercise cause my fingers to swell?
Yes, exercise can cause your fingers to swell. When you exercise, your heart significantly increases the amount of blood it pumps in order to get enough oxygen to your muscles. This is accompanied by dilation of the blood vessels in your arms and legs, which helps increase blood flow to these muscles and cool the body. This increased blood flow can lead to swelling as some water leaves the blood to the tissues in the fingers.
Which foods make your fingers swell?
Classically, salty foods are responsible for finger swelling. When you eat a lot of salt, your body retains more water than it otherwise would in order to keep its salt concentration within normal range. This can lead to bloating in the hands and feet, which you may experience as finger swelling.
Why do my fingers swell at night?
Your fingers may swell at night for a few reasons. Many of us indulge in heavy salt-laden dinners right before bed, which can lead to finger swelling. Alternatively, you may be sleeping in a position that leads to hand and finger swelling. Overuse of your hands at work may lead to swelling that worsens throughout the day, which you only notice once work is finished by night time. Finally, you may also get finger swelling from arthritis as a result of the accumulated trauma of a day of work or autoimmune inflammation.
Why are my fingers swelling for no reason?
While the reason for your finger swelling may not be clear, one certainly exists. Most finger swelling is relatively benign when a cause is not immediately apparent. Some reasons your fingers may swell include heavy salt consumption, exercise, high temperatures, arthritis, overuse, or injury. Rarely, finger swelling is a sign of heart, liver or kidney failure, but these are chronic conditions accompanied by other symptoms and swelling that is worse in the legs.
Do STDs cause swollen fingers?
STDs (sexually transmitted diseases) are not a common cause of swollen fingers. In rare cases, gonorrhea can spread to other sites in the body, including large and small joints. Most commonly, this involves joints such as the knees, wrists, and ankles, rather than those of the fingers. It is possible, as well, to get skin lesions such as herpes on the fingers which cause swelling.
Questions your doctor may ask about swollen fingers
- Have you ever been diagnosed with diabetes?
- Have you ever been diagnosed with cancer?
- Do you have these contractures that limit the movement of your fingers? (See picture)
- Do any of your body parts (e.g., toes, hands, ears) feel cold?
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