Causes and treatment of finger pain
In this article, we explore some of the potential causes of finger pain and their treatments.
We also cover when to see a doctor and some self-care tips for finger pain.
An injury to the finger can cause pain and limited mobility.
Injuries to the hands and fingers are common. This is particularly the case for people who play sports or those who regularly use heavy equipment or tools.
Causes can include:
- falling on the hand
- knocks and blows
- jamming a finger
- overextending the fingers or bending them too far backward
Injuries to the fingers can cause pain, swelling, and reduced mobility. In more severe cases, a person may dislocate or fracture a finger bone or damage a tendon or ligament.
A person can usually treat a minor finger injury using RICE therapy:
- Rest. Avoid using the finger as much as possible until it has had time to heal. It may also help to immobilize the finger using a splint or by buddy taping it to a neighboring finger.
- Ice. Apply an ice pack to the injured finger for up to 20 minutes several times per day. Ice packs can help reduce pain and swelling.
- Compression. Wrap the injured finger snuggly, but not too tight to cause constriction of the blood vessels, in a soft dressing or bandage.
- Elevation. Keeping the finger elevated above the level of the heart can help reduce swelling.
Taking over-the-counter (OTC) pain relief medications, such as acetaminophen, ibuprofen, and naproxen, may also help reduce pain and swelling.
People who suspect a fracture or dislocation should avoid moving the finger and seek prompt medical attention.
A trained healthcare professional will reset the bone and immobilize the finger to allow it to heal properly, which reduces the risk of further complications.
Trigger finger is the common name for a condition that doctors call stenosing tenosynovitis.
It can occur when the tendon sheath in the base of the finger becomes inflamed, causing the finger to lock or catch when a person tries to move it.
Symptoms of trigger finger can include:
- pain and swelling at the base of the finger
- difficulty bending or straightening the finger
- a popping or catching sensation when trying to move the finger
- finger stiffness
Symptoms of trigger finger may be worse when a person wakes up or after other long periods of inactivity.
Treatment for trigger finger typically involves resting and immobilizing the finger, such as by using a splint. The doctor may also recommend doing some gentle exercises to stretch the finger, which may help reduce stiffness and improve mobility.
For people with more severe symptoms, a doctor may prescribe steroid injections to help reduce pain and inflammation. If other treatments are unsuccessful, a person may require surgery to release the tendon sheath.
Carpal tunnel syndrome
Carpal tunnel syndrome affects the median nerve, which runs through the carpal tunnel in the wrist.
If the nerve becomes compressed or swollen within the tunnel, it can cause pain, tingling, and numbness in the hand and fingers. The pain may start in the fingers and radiate up the arm.
Symptoms may start gradually and worsen over time. Some people may also begin to experience weakness in the hand and difficulties gripping objects or performing precise movements.
Symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome are often progressive, so it is important for a person to see a doctor.
Treatment depends on the severity of a person's symptoms and can include:
- wearing a brace or splint
- making lifestyle changes, such as avoiding any activities that worsen symptoms and making adjustments to workstations
- undergoing physical therapy
- taking nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as ibuprofen and naproxen
- receiving steroid injections
If symptoms do not improve, a doctor may suggest surgery to relieve pressure on the median nerve.
Ganglion cysts can cause pain or tingling.
Image credit: Macktheknifeau, 2014.
Ganglion cysts are fluid-filled lumps that can develop near joints or tendons in the wrists and hands, such as at the base of fingers. These lumps can vary in size and may feel soft or firm to the touch.
Ganglion cysts are usually harmless, but they can cause pain or tingling in some people.
Doctors do not currently know what causes ganglion cysts, but they can develop in people of any age.
Ganglion cysts tend to disappear on their own, and treatment is generally only necessary if the cysts are causing pain or reducing the mobility of the finger.
If ganglion cysts are causing problems, a doctor may recommend:
- draining the cyst using a procedure called aspiration
- surgically removing the cyst
Cuts and wounds on the hands or fingers can sometimes lead to infections.
Symptoms of a finger infection can include:
- pain that worsens
- skin flushing or warmth
- pus or discharge from the cut or wound
- feeling unwell
Properly cleaning and dressing any cuts and wounds can help prevent infections.
People who suspect that their finger is infected should speak to a doctor. Without treatment, infections can sometimes lead to serious complications, such as cellulitis, abscess formation, or even sepsis.
Treatment depends on the type and severity of infection. A doctor may prescribe antibiotics for a person with a bacterial infection.
Osteoarthritis commonly affects the joints in the hands.
Osteoarthritis is "the most common form of arthritis." It occurs when the cartilage that protects the ends of bones wears down. Osteoarthritis can affect any joint, but it most commonly affects the fingers and hands.
In the fingers, osteoarthritis can cause:
- pain that may get worse with activity
- skin flushing and tenderness
- stiffness and reduced range of motion
- bony knots near the finger joints
Osteoarthritis tends to develop gradually and may become worse over time. It is more common in older people and those who have experienced previous joint injuries.
People with osteoarthritis symptoms should see a doctor for an evaluation. While there is no cure for osteoarthritis, treatment can help relieve symptoms and improve mobility.
Treatment options for osteoarthritis include:
- regularly exercising and stretching
- managing weight
- undergoing occupational and physical therapy
- taking anti-inflammatory medications, such as ibuprofen and steroids
- having surgery
Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic condition wherein the immune system wrongly attacks healthy tissue in the lining of joints. This can cause pain, swelling, deformity, and stiffness.
Rheumatoid arthritis commonly affects the wrists and fingers, particularly the middle joints of the fingers, but it can also develop in other parts of the body.
Other symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis can include:
- joints that are warm or tender to the touch
- misshapen joints that may cause a bend in the fingers
- numbness and tingling in the fingers
- fatigue and a lack of energy
The cause of rheumatoid arthritis is not clear, but it is more common in women than men and can sometimes run in families.
People with symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis should see a doctor. There is no cure for this condition, so the aim of treatment is to relieve symptoms and prevent joint damage.
Treatment options for rheumatoid arthritis may include:
- taking anti-inflammatory medications
- taking immunosuppressant medications
- undergoing physical and occupational therapy
- trying complementary therapies such as yoga, massage, and acupuncture
- having surgery
Image credit: Frank C. Müller, 2006.
Dupuytren's contracture is the thickening of the tissues in the palm of the hand.
This thickening can lead to the formation of nodules and cords that can reduce movement and may cause the fingers to bend toward the palm.
Other symptoms can include:
- discomfort or pain in the fingers or palm with use
- lumps and pits beneath the palm
- not being able to place the hand flat against a surface
- difficulty using the hands
It is not clear what causes Dupuytren's contracture, but it mainly occurs in males aged 40 or older of European descent. Symptoms tend to gradually get worse over time.
People with mild symptoms may not require treatment. However, for more severe symptoms, a doctor may recommend surgery to remove the cords to allow the fingers to straighten.
When to see a doctor
A person should see a doctor for any pain that impacts their ability to carry out their daily activities or job. It is important for people to seek prompt medical attention for suspected fractures, dislocations, and wound infections.
To diagnose the cause of finger pain, a doctor will typically review a person's symptoms and medical history and conduct a physical examination of the affected finger.
They may also order imaging and blood tests to help with their diagnosis.
Self-care for finger pain
Self-care measures for finger pain may include:
- applying an ice pack to the affected area for up to 20 minutes at a time
- resting the finger as much as possible
- protecting and immobilizing the affected finger using a splint or by buddy taping it
- keeping the finger elevated above the level of the heart to reduce swelling
- taking OTC pain relievers, such as acetaminophen, ibuprofen, and naproxen
Finger pain is often the result of minor injuries. People can often treat finger pain at home with rest and immobilization.
However, severe, worsening, or recurring pain may be the sign of a more serious injury or an underlying condition.
Possible causes of finger pain include tendon conditions, arthritis, ganglion cysts, and infections.
A person should see a doctor for finger pain or symptoms that impact a person's daily activities. They should also seek prompt medical attention if they suspect a fracture, dislocation, or wound infection.