How to Treat a Sprained or Dislocated Finger

A detail of a splint on the finger of Dirk Nowitzki #41 of the Dallas Mavericks against the Miami Heat in Game Two of the 2011 NBA Finals at American Airlines Arena on June 2, 2011 in Miami, Florida.
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Finger sprains and dislocations are common injuries to the hand. When a sprain occurs, a ligament that supports a joint is stretched too far and the tough fibers of the ligament tissue become either partially or completely torn.

In some cases, the damage to the supporting ligaments is significant enough that the joint comes apart, causing an injury called a dislocation.

Common causes of finger sprains and dislocations include sports injuries, work-related injuries, and automobile accidents.

Finger ligament injuries can vary in severity. Have your injury evaluated by your doctor to ensure you get any necessary treatment to help your finger heal properly.

Finger Sprains

Finger sprains are fairly common, especially as a result of sports injuries and falls onto your hand. Often, these cause the finger to bend unusually, causing the ligament injury and subsequent pain.

Finger sprains can occur at any of the "knuckle" joints of the digit but are most common at the PIP (proximal interphalangeal) joint in the middle of the finger.

Common Symptoms

  • Pain with finger movement
  • Swelling around the knuckle
  • Tenderness of the finger

If your doctor recommends an x-ray, rest assured that it's standard procedure to ensure that there is no bone fracture, as fractures around the joint may require more invasive treatment.

Other tests, such as MRIs or CT scans, are seldom necessary to make a diagnosis of this type of problem.

Treating Finger Sprains

Finger sprains are often splinted or buddy-taped (taped to an adjacent finger) for a short period of time. So long as there is no fracture or dislocation, most finger sprains should be allowed to move within about a week.

Splinting the sprained finger during sports can help protect the injury, but unnecessarily splinting the finger will cause the digit to become stiff. You should discuss with your doctor when to begin finger movements.

At-Home Treatments

In addition to taping or splinting the injured finger, other treatments for a sprain include:

  • Ice the injured finger
  • Elevate if there is swelling
  • Take an anti-inflammatory medication
  • Gently move the finger to prevent stiffening

Thumb sprains and certain finger sprains in children may require a longer period of immobilization or evaluation by a specialist, especially if there is a concern that a ligament was torn.

One injury, in particular, the so-called "Gamekeeper's thumb," requires immobilization and occasionally surgery. This particular injury is important because chronically injured ligaments at this joint affect our ability to pinch.

It is not unusual for finger sprains to cause swelling and stiffness that can persist for months following the injury. It's important if you have these persistent symptoms that you let your doctor know so that they can ensure there is not a more severe injury (such as a finger fracture).

Finger Dislocations

A finger dislocation is a more severe injury to the digit, as it involves not only the ligament, but also the surrounding joint capsule, cartilage, and other tissues. When a joint is dislocated, the normal alignment of the finger is altered, and the joint must be put back into place.

Sometimes, relocating a finger dislocation can be simple and other times it can be very difficult. Often, the individual being treated can relocate their own finger just by simply pulling it back into position.

Other times, the dislocation may require anesthesia or even a surgical procedure to realign the digit. In these challenging situations, there may be tendons or other tissues preventing the joint from going back into position.

When the joint is dislocated, the ligaments and the joint capsule surrounding the injured joint are torn. Sometimes, these ligaments do not heal adequately and surgery is occasionally needed to repair the injured structures. That said, most finger dislocations can be treated with a simple splint.

Once the joint has been put back into position, the finger is splinted to allow the ligaments and joint capsule to heal.

Treatment of a dislocated finger is similar to that of a sprained finger. You should ice and elevate the injured finger after the injury.

After the dislocation has been reduced (put back into position), the joint should be splinted and an x-ray obtained. The x-ray is performed to ensure the joint is perfectly aligned, and that there was no fracture that occurred at the time of the injury. Then follow your doctor's recommendations for when to begin finger motion.

A Word From Verywell

In most cases, both a finger sprain and dislocation are easily treatable. Usually, you'll be able to use your hand as normal within a week, but don't worry if a sprain causes pain and discomfort for a longer period of time—that's normal. If it's really bothering you, speak with your doctor to see if there is an available option to reduce the discomfort.

Although dislocation is a more serious injury, expect treatment similar to that of a sprain. In both cases, don't panic if a doctor recommends an x-ray—that's normal procedure for ensuring that your digit is healing properly and back to normal.

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Article Sources

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  1. Mayo Clinic, "Dislocation - Symptoms and causes"

Additional Reading

  • Elfar J, Mann T. Fracture-dislocations of the proximal interphalangeal joint. J Am Acad Orthop Surg. 2013 Feb;21(2):88-98.