A sprain can occur when a ligament in the thumb is injured or torn. Ligaments connect two bones, forming a joint. A sprain can be very painful and may be confused with a broken bone or a joint problem, such as arthritis.
The hand is made up of a complex group of joints, including tendons, ligaments, and muscles. When joints bear too much pressure, receive sharp blows, or are overextended, the ligaments can become injured, resulting in a sprain.
The severity of a sprain depends on many factors, including whether the ligament is torn and how severe the tear is. Sprains can also be tricky to distinguish when they occur with other injuries.
Minor sprains can heal in as few as 2 weeks. More severe sprains can take 6 to 12 weeks, or longer. Anyone who experiences thumb pain, particularly if it lasts longer than a few days should see a doctor.
Even though most sprains do not require treatment, a doctor might recommend a splint and ensure that there is no additional damage.
While no medical treatment can repair a sprain, there are some things a person can do to ease pain and reduce swelling during recovery.
A few simple strategies to reduce swelling and pain during recovery include:
- Rest: Avoid typing and other activities that require a lot of thumb movement. Wear a splint if recommended.
- Ice: Apply ice to the injury for 20 minutes at a time and repeat at regular intervals, four to eight times per day.
- Medication: Take nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen.
- Elevation: Keep the area elevated for the first few days.
Preventing the joint from moving can also speed healing time, particularly with more severe sprains. A doctor may recommend wearing a splint or cast for several weeks.
If a severe sprain is left untreated, it can lead to other problems. The ligament may tear more, and surrounding areas may be injured. Some people develop chronic weakness, instability, deformity, or arthritis.
When is surgery necessary?
Some of the most severe sprains may require surgery. In some sprains, a torn ligament may rip away pieces of bone. When this happens, a surgeon can repair the ligament and restore the bone fragments. Following surgery, most people will need to wear a cast for 6 to 8 weeks.
Remaining comfortable during recovery
As the swelling and pain subside, return to normal activities slowly. Doing too much too quickly can aggravate the injury.
Strengthening exercises may help the thumb to heal, but the correct exercise will depend on the injured ligament. Consult a doctor or physical therapist who can recommend what exercise to do, when to begin it, and how frequently to perform it.
When the thumb has been stretched too far or otherwise damaged, the injury will likely be a sprain. However, symptoms can take time to appear, so it may be difficult to distinguish the sprain from other injuries. Pain from these other injuries may also radiate throughout the thumb, worsening the pain from the sprain.
Changes in the shape of the thumb, a cracking sound following a fall, and numbness often occur when the thumb or a nearby bone is broken.
A doctor can perform an X-ray to ensure that there are no broken bones. This can also help to determine whether a condition such as arthritis is causing the symptoms.
Common symptoms of a sprain include:
- pain that radiates throughout the hand or wrist
- bruising, swelling, or discoloration around the thumb
- looseness in the joint or trouble moving the thumb
Doctors judge the severity of a sprain using a grading system:
- Grade 1 sprains: These occur when a ligament is stretched or receives a tiny tear. There may be swelling and mild pain.
- Grade 2 sprains: These involve a partial tear of a ligament. The thumb may be tender and painful to move, or it may feel unusually loose.
- Grade 3 sprains: These entail a complete tear of a ligament. The sprain may be very painful, and it may be difficult to move the thumb.
Below is a 3-D model of a sprained thumb, which is fully interactive.
Explore the model using your mouse pad or touchscreen to understand more about a sprained thumb.
Anyone can sprain a thumb, and there is no way to eliminate the risk.
Skiers are especially vulnerable because a ski pole can overextend the thumb during a fall. A skier can minimize the risk of a fall by remaining aware of their surroundings. It may help to practice falling, as this can train the body’s reflexes to help it land safely.
Grabbing a ski pole for support during a fall may increase the likelihood of injury.
It is easy to dismiss a sprain as a minor injury, but sprains can be incredibly painful. If ignored, severe sprains can cause long-term damage and chronic pain.
While a sprain is not a medical emergency, a doctor can confirm that the thumb is not broken and ensure that a person receives proper treatment.
With prompt care, most people fully recover and can return to their usual activities.