Potential Causes of Sudden Pain and Swelling in Finger Joints

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Pain and swelling in the finger joints typically results from inflammation. Joint inflammation that causes sudden pain and swelling can be caused by several conditions, including acute injury to the hands or fingers or from a chronic, systemic condition that causes widespread joint inflammation. 

a woman with a swelling finger

Inna Kozhina / Getty Images

Causes

A number of conditions can affect your hand and finger joints and cause sudden pain, from an injury and infection to arthritis and autoimmune diseases.

Injury

Injury to your fingers, including jamming your finger, crushing injuries, or direct trauma to your hands or fingers can cause joint inflammation. After an injury, the body’s immune system responds by sending blood and fluid to the area to protect the injured part, causing swelling. Pain and swelling resolve as the injury begins to heal and blood flow increases to the affected area. 

Infection

Swollen and inflamed finger joints can result from septic arthritis, a condition that causes joint inflammation from an infection of the joints. Septic arthritis can affect any joint, including those of the fingers, and also can cause fevers, chills, and body aches.

X-rays of the affected joints will show joint swelling without damage or destruction to the bone. However, septic arthritis can lead to severe damage of the joint if left untreated.

Septic arthritis is most often caused by Staphylococcus aureus bacteria. Joint aspiration, or removing fluid from the joint, is typically performed to confirm a diagnosis of septic arthritis. Removing and testing the aspirated joint fluid will show high levels of leukocytes, white blood cells that fight off infections, as well as the presence of bacterial cultures.

Rheumatoid Arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune, inflammatory condition that causes joint pain, stiffness, and swelling in the lining of joints, usually in a symmetrical fashion, on both sides of the body equally. The joints of the hands and fingers are commonly affected.

Bloodwork showing elevated levels of rheumatoid factor and anti-CCP (anti-cyclic citrullinated peptide) antibodies may confirm a diagnosis of RA. X-rays of affected joints will show joint erosion and joint-space narrowing. There usually is a genetic link in families that increases the risk of developing RA.

 Psoriatic Arthritis

Psoriatic arthritis (PsA) is another autoimmune, inflammatory type of arthritis that causes joint pain. About 30% of people with psoriasis, an autoimmune skin condition that causes itchy, scaly patches, develop PsA.

People who have both psoriasis and PsA are usually diagnosed with psoriasis first. However, occasionally signs of psoriatic arthritis will present before symptoms of psoriasis are present.

The distal interphalangeal joints of the fingers, which are the joints closest to your fingertips, are commonly affected by PsA, resulting in dactylitis, or swelling of an entire digit in either the hands or feet. This swelling produces a sausage-like appearance. PsA is often accompanied by related symptoms like:

  • Nail pitting and separation
  • Tendon and ligament pain
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Uveitis, or inflammation of the eyes
  • Digestive symptoms like abdominal pain, bloating, constipation, and diarrhea
  • Organ damage from inflammation of the heart, lungs, or kidneys

Gout

Gout is another type of arthritis. It results from the accumulation of uric acid in the blood and body tissues. The uric acid crystallizes within joints, causing tophi, hard, visible clusters of uric acid crystals under the skin. Tophi commonly occur in the finger joints, causing significant joint pain, instability, swelling, and loss of range of motion that can severely impact hand and finger movement. 

What Is Uric Acid?

Uric acid is a chemical that's created when the body breaks down substances known as purines. Purines are produced in the body and are also found in some foods and drinks, including alcohol, some seafood and shellfish, and meats.

Most uric acid dissolves in blood and travels to the kidneys. From there, it passes out of the body through the urine. A high level of uric acid in the blood is called hyperuricemia.

Having diabetic renal (kidney) disease increases the risk of gout and tophi because a poorly functioning kidney decreases the body’s ability to excrete uric acid. X-rays of the affected joints often show bone erosion, calcification from tophi, and complete joint destruction that can cause reabsorption of the phalangeal bones of the fingers, the largest finger bones, closest to the hand.

Untreated tophi can progress to infection, skin ulceration (open sores), and entrapment, or compression, of nerves, which can cause neuropathy (tingling and numbness).

 Lupus

Lupus is an autoimmune disease that causes pain and inflammation throughout the body, most often affecting the skin, joints, and internal organs. The most common form of lupus is systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE). It can produce a wide variety of symptoms like extreme fatigue, headaches, low fevers, pain and swelling in the joints, and a butterfly-shaped rash on the cheeks and nose.

Similar to RA, lupus affects many joints symmetrically, on both sides of the body at once, with an increased likelihood of problems in the wrists and hands. Symptoms are usually less severe than those of RA, but they are similar in that they cause joint swelling, stiffness, and pain in the fingers, hands, and wrists.

About 5%–10% of patients with lupus and arthritis-like symptoms develop significant deformities in their finger joints. The most common misalignments of the fingers resulting from lupus are:

  • Swan neck deformity, in which the middle joint of the finger is bent back more than normal
  • Excessive ulnar deviation (also called ulnar drift), in which the fingers become angled toward the pinky finger instead of pointing straight

Diagnosis

If you have injured one or more of your finger joints, you may want to see your primary care physician or an orthopedist, a doctor specializing in diagnosing and treating injuries and disorders of the bones. The doctor will examine your fingers to assess the level of injury.

You may be given a brace or splint to wear to help stabilize your injured finger joint until it has healed enough. If severe injury is present, such as a severed or ruptured tendon or ligament or a broken bone (fracture), surgery may be necessary to repair the injury. 

If you did not injure your finger and are experiencing pain and swelling, you may have a systemic condition that is causing joint inflammation. If this is the case, it would be best to see a rheumatologist, a doctor who specializes in joint diseases and musculoskeletal conditions, such as arthritis. 

A rheumatologist will discuss your symptoms, examine your fingers, and may send you for additional testing to make a diagnosis. Blood work is the most common way to determine if a systemic condition like RA, PsA, gout, or lupus is present.

Your blood will be tested for elevated levels of inflammatory markers. X-rays of your affected finger joints will also be taken to examine the extent of joint swelling and damage. 

Treatment and Management

For acute injuries, rest, ice, and immobilization in the beginning stages after injury can help protect your injured finger joints and allow them to heal. Physical or occupational therapy may be necessary afterwards, depending on the extent of your injury, to regain finger and hand strength and range of motion to complete everyday tasks.

Septic infections of the finger joints must be treated with antibiotics to eliminate the harmful bacteria causing your joint pain and inflammation. For systemic conditions that can cause finger joint swelling, your treatment will focus on reducing inflammation and preventing disease progression.

Arthritis

Different types of arthritis, including RA and PsA, can be managed with a variety of treatment options to reduce pain and inflammation and improve joint movement. These include:

  • Over-the-counter (OTC) pain medications
  • Topical pain-relieving creams
  • Applying warm paraffin wax to the hands and fingers to decrease pain and stiffness
  • Prescription medications to reduce pain and inflammation, including disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs)
  • Cortisone injections into the finger and wrist joints to reduce inflammation
  • Physical or occupational therapy to improve hand strength and range of motion
  • Hand bracing or splinting for joint protection

Autoimmune forms of arthritis like RA and PsA often require lifelong treatment with medications to decrease inflammation and prevent disease progression.

Gout

Therapy to lower urates is the most common treatment used to decrease uric acid levels in patients with gout. The goal is to decrease serum urate levels to 6 milligrams per deciliter or less to reduce tophi and improve joint functioning. Common medications used to lower uric acid levels include Aloprim (allopurinol), Uloric (febuxostat), Benemid (probenecid), Zurampic (lesinurad), and Krystexxa (pegloticase).

If gout tophi are severe and unresponsive to medical treatment, surgery may be necessary to remove the damaged tissue in the affected joints (debridement) and free up the finger tendons to improve functional hand and finger use. The affected finger joint will also be irrigated with a warm saline solution to help remove the tophi and prevent the joint from drying out and forming new uric acid crystals.

Surgery for gout usually is only performed in severe cases of gout, including when the following are present:

  • Disease progression
  • Significant pain and tophi
  • Nerve compression, or entrapment
  • Recurring infections
  • Skin ulcerations
  • Joint instability

Pain and tophi formation can also be managed by limiting consumption of foods high in purines that lead to increased uric acid levels in the blood. Foods high in purines include red meat, shellfish, and alcohol.

Lupus

Unlike RA, pain and inflammation within joints of the fingers from lupus most often result from ligament and tendon laxity (looseness) rather than bone damage. Because of this, symptoms tend to be easier to correct with bracing or splinting of the fingers.

Lupus is also commonly managed with anti-inflammatory and immunosuppressive medications to decrease inflammation throughout the body.

Summary

Sudden pain and swelling in your finger joints can be a result of an injury, infection, or systemic conditions like RA, PsA, lupus, and gout. The pain and swelling that occur are usually due to the inflammation caused by these conditions.

Minor injuries to your hands or finger joints can be managed with home remedies, but more severe cases and infections like septic arthritis require help from a healthcare provider. Systemic conditions need to be treated by a rheumatologist to alleviate symptoms and prevent or slow down disease progression.

A Word From Verywell

Finger joint pain and swelling that occur out of the blue without an injury are likely a sign of a systemic inflammatory condition. It is important to schedule an appointment with your primary care physician or a specialist to get a thorough exam and tests like X-rays or blood work performed to determine a diagnosis.

Inflammatory conditions like RA, PsA, gout, and lupus often progress and worsen if left untreated, so early diagnosis, treatment, and symptom management are key to maintaining optimal health and well-being. 

Frequently Asked Questions

How do you reduce arthritis swelling in a finger joint?

Finger joint swelling from arthritis can be reduced by limiting repetitive overuse of the fingers and applying ice to help calm down the pain and inflammation. Strengthening the muscles of the fingers and hands to better support the joints can also help ease pain and prevent the recurrence of symptoms. 

How long does it take for swelling in a jammed finger joint to go down?

Finger joint swelling from a jammed finger joint can vary depending on the severity of the injury. A minor injury will typically start to feel better within a week, but it may take up to a month or more for the swelling to completely resolve. If the injury is more severe and involves a ligament or tendon sprain, joint swelling may linger for up to six to eight weeks. 

How do I heal the swelling in my finger joint after a gout attack?

Finger swelling from gout results from uric acid crystals forming in your finger joints. Reducing uric acid levels throughout the body through medications and diet can help decrease finger swelling and inflammation and reduce the risk of future gout flare-ups. 

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