A broken thumb can severely affect a person’s ability to pick up and hold objects.
The bones in the thumb can break in several different ways, and these affect how a doctor will treat a broken thumb.
This article covers the common symptoms of a broken thumb, as well as some potential treatments. Read on to learn more.
A break in the thumb can occur anywhere along its two bones: the distal phalange or the proximal phalange. The distal phalange is the tip of the thumb, and the proximal phalange is the portion closest to the thumb’s base.
Thumb fractures, or breaks, can occur for a number of reasons. These include:
- falling and landing on the thumb
- pulling the thumb back too far
- excessively twisting the thumb joint
People who wrestle, play hockey or football, or ski are at risk of a broken thumb, as are people with a calcium deficiency or history of bone disease.
Some symptoms of a broken thumb include:
- difficulty moving the thumb
- sudden and severe pain in the thumb
- tenderness to the touch
- thumb appears misshapen
- thumb feels cold to the touch
- tingling and numbness in the thumb
If a person has difficulty moving the thumb or it feels cold to the touch, they should seek emergency medical treatment. These symptoms can indicate impaired blood flow to the thumb.
A sprained thumb occurs when the ligaments that connect the thumb joints stretch or tear. With sprains, there is no break in the bone, but a person may experience severe pain and discomfort.
Some of the symptoms of a sprained thumb include:
- a thumb joint that feels unstable
- a lump or bump present on the thumb joint
- problems grasping objects
Severe thumb sprains can disconnect the ligament from the thumb joint, making it feel unstable. Severe sprains can closely resemble a break.
Sometimes, a person may need to seek medical attention to determine whether they have a thumb sprain or a thumb break.
Severe sprains may require surgical correction — similar to the treatment of severe breaks.
If a person suspects that they may have broken their thumb, they should seek immediate medical treatment. Waiting to seek care can impact a doctor’s ability to correct the fracture at a later time.
Some steps a person can take to minimize pain and help doctors treat the injury include:
- keeping the thumb elevated to help reduce swelling
- applying a cloth-covered ice pack to the thumb, which can help reduce pain and swelling
- wrapping the affected thumb with a cloth bandage or wrap, usually in a straight position, as this can help keep the thumb from moving and further injuring the bones
Promptly seeking care can help a person get the treatment they need to correct the thumb fracture.
Treatment for a thumb fracture depends on where the break has occurred.
For example, a break in the base of the thumb often requires surgery. This is because a doctor may have difficulty applying a splint or cast to the thumb. A splint or cast ensures that the thumb is in the right place to heal correctly.
A doctor may be able to correct breaks closer to the end of the thumb through external manipulation. This involves putting pressure on the thumb until the injured bones go back into place. Surgery is not usually required in this case.
A doctor may then apply a special brace to the thumb to keep it firmly in place. Sometimes, they may have to insert a small pin through the joint from the outside of the finger.
This pin will hold the thumb in place while it heals. A doctor will remove it about 6 weeks after placing it.
More severe breaks that require surgery may also involve the placement of pins, plates, or screws to stabilize the thumb. A doctor places these with the goal of preserving movement, maintaining alignment, and reducing stiffness.
Before surgery, a doctor should explain the type of fracture a person has, including its exact location in the thumb. They should also explain the intended surgical approach and expected recovery time.
Recovery times for a broken thumb vary based on the type of treatment. For example, if a person has a cast for their injured thumb, they will usually have to wear it for 4–6 weeks.
A person may have to return to the doctor’s office for the doctor to remove any stabilizing pins. This is usually anywhere from 2–6 weeks after the injury occurs.
If a person has a cast after surgery, a doctor will usually remove this up to 6 weeks after the procedure.
A doctor will usually recommend physical therapy following a thumb fracture and after a person has their cast removed. Physical therapy usually involves strengthening and stretching exercises to help a person regain movement and strength in the thumb.
However, it may not feel as though the thumb has regained its full function until about 3 months later.
Failure to treat a broken thumb can often result in arthritis or breaking down of the joint. This can cause chronic pain, stiffness, and swelling.
A broken thumb can cause pain and swelling, and it may be visibly misshapen. Sometimes, a doctor may be able to correct the injury by using force to put the thumb back in place and applying a cast.
The need for surgery can depend on the severity and location of the break. A person should always seek immediate medical attention to promote healing and reduce the risk of complications from a thumb fracture that does not properly heal.