A sprained finger occurs when the ligaments that connect and support the bones and joints of the finger are damaged. Sprained fingers are very common and can be very painful, swollen, and difficult to move.
For most people, resting, icing, compressing, and elevating (RICE) the injured finger will reduce inflammation and associated symptoms.
Depending on the severity of the damage, sprained fingers usually improve in a few days with basic care, and heal entirely after a few weeks of rest and rehabilitation.
Fast facts on a sprained finger:
- Most symptoms caused by a sprained finger are related to inflammation.
- People with severe finger sprains should see a doctor.
- Mild sprains typically take 1 to 2 weeks to heal completely.
Inflammation is the primary symptom of a sprained finger. Inflammation occurs because it is the body's first line of immune defense after an injury.
A sprain may also cause reduced mobility of the injured finger.
Other symptoms commonly associated with a sprained finger include:
- increase in pain when attempting to move or use the finger
- inability to straighten, extend, or bend the finger
- throbbing, especially when allowing the finger to rest or when hanging at a person's side
Unlike a sprained finger, a broken finger involves injury to the actual bones or joints of the finger and requires medical treatment.
Broken fingers also tend to be painful, disabling, or alarming enough that most people seek medical attention soon after they occur.
Broken fingers often cause the same symptoms as sprained fingers, though they tend to be more severe or exaggerated. A broken finger may also appear disfigured, out of alignment, or abnormally bent.
And most broken fingers are nearly impossible to straighten, stretch, or use without extreme pain.
Most mild sprains, where the ligaments are stretched too far but are not torn, do not require medical attention.
People can usually treat a mildly sprained finger at home using RICE to reduce blood flow and by extension, inflammation.
Over-the-counter pain and anti-inflammatory medications can also help reduce and manage symptoms for the first few days.
Tips for treating sprained fingers at home include:
R — rest
One of the easiest ways to reduce pain and swelling associated with a sprained finger is to limit the use of the finger for a few days after the initial injury. Depending on how severe the sprain is, it often helps to rest the injured finger for a few hours each day while it heals.
I — ice
Apply an ice pack or compress wrapped in a cloth to the injured finger. Do not expose the skin directly to ice and do not keep the ice on the finger for more than 15 minutes at one time. If the finger becomes more painful, swollen, or darker in color, a person should stop using the ice immediately. Ice packs are available for purchase online.
Icing injuries for too long can increase inflammation and potentially freeze and damage tissues. Take a 20-minute break between icing sessions and repeat hourly or several times daily.
C — compression
Gently wrap the finger with a small elastic bandage, finger compress bandage, or sports tape, all of which are available to purchase online. Wrap the bandage just tight enough to apply light pressure to the finger. Do not wrap too tightly, as the bandage could act as a tourniquet and limit the circulation. Remove the bandage after the first 24 to 48 hours, or when the inflammation has begun to reduce significantly. Once the compression bandage has been removed, the finger should be buddy taped.
E — elevation
Keep the finger elevated, or raised at a level above the heart. Use a sling to keep the finger raised while standing or walking. While sitting or sleeping, use a pillow to prop up the injured finger.
Especially in the first few days after the sprain occurs, over-the-counter pain and anti-inflammation medications, such as ibuprofen, acetaminophen, aspirin, and naproxen, can help make symptoms more manageable.
Take all medications as prescribed. If a person wants to take medication for an extended period, they must talk to a doctor first.
Mild to moderate strains respond well to buddy taping — using first aid tape to bind the injured finger to a healthy finger next to it. Buddy taping the injured finger protects it from further injury and encourages it to straighten as it heals.
For moderate to severe sprains, wait about 48 hours after the injury happened or for the initial swelling to start subsiding before taping the finger.
Tips for buddy taping a sprained finger include:
- Cut a small piece of foam or cotton pad into a small rectangle roughly half the length and width of the injured finger.
- Cut two strips of non-stretch first aid or medical tape long enough to wrap around the finger.
- Apply two pieces of tape to the sprained finger — one just above the injured joint and one just below the injury.
- Position the cut piece of foam or cotton pad where the knuckles or bones of the two fingers between taped may press against one another.
- Tape the injured finger to the finger next to it, using the existing pieces of tape as an anchor.
- Do not wrap the fingers too tightly. If the tape causes the finger to bend or twist, it is too tight
- Remove the buddy tape once the finger has fully healed, usually after 2 to 4 weeks
First aid tape is available for purchase online.
Moderate sprains often benefit from the use of a splint to fully restrict the ligament and keep it straight while it heals.
Finger braces can be purchased at drug or grocery store and applied as instructed.
Most studies show that a type of splint called a baseball splint is the best choice for a sprained finger.
The injured finger should be splinted in a slightly flexed, or downward curving, position and left on for 5 to 7 days. Once a person has removed the splint, they may choose to buddy tape the finger until it heals fully.
Finger braces are available for purchase online.
Once the pain and swelling have decreased, it is important to start moving the finger as much as is comfortable.
As the finger heals, performing daily finger stretches using a hand exercise ball or resistance bands can help encourage healthy blood flow to the finger and prevents muscle loss.
Stop, or reduce, exercises or stretches that increase pain or feel very uncomfortable.
If the ligament is completely torn, surgery may be necessary to repair the tissue and allow it to heal properly. Otherwise, an unstable joint is a possibility.
After surgery, a doctor will apply a splint or cast to the finger, which a person will need to keep on for several weeks.
Buddy taping is best used during the final weeks of healing once the cast or splint has been removed.
With basic rest and care, most sprained fingers start to feel much better within 48 hours. More moderate sprains often take 3 to 6 weeks to heal entirely.
Though recovery time largely depends on the extent of the injury, severe or torn finger ligaments usually take two to three times longer to heal than mild or moderate finger sprains.
A person should seek medical attention anytime a sprained finger is excruciatingly painful, or if symptoms do not improve within the first 24 to 48 hours.
Sprained fingers that appear misshapen, bent, or darkly colored also require medical attention. And it is essential to see a doctor as soon as possible if a person thinks bones or joints have been damaged during the injury.