Should I see a doctor for a finger injury?

DEAR DOCTOR K:

I hurt my finger playing basketball last week. The pain is manageable, but doesn’t seem to be lessening. Should I see a doctor?

DEAR READER:

Catching a ball — a football, baseball or basketball — is a common way kids and young adults can injure a finger. Fortunately, most finger injuries are not serious or lasting. But sometimes a tendon (fibers that connect muscles to bones, and cause fingers to move) can be torn, or a joint can be dislocated, or one of the finger bones broken. So you’ve asked an important question.

Some injuries should be evaluated by a doctor. See your doctor if:

  • You have severe pain and cannot put any pressure on the injured joint.
  • The finger is deformed, compared to the fingers next to it or the same finger on the other hand. This could indicate a dislocation or fracture.
  • You cannot move the injured joint.
  • You have numbness, coolness or discoloration in any part of the injured area.
  • You see redness or red streaks spreading out from the injury.
  • You injure an area that has been injured several times before.
  • You are in doubt about the seriousness of the injury or how to care for it.

What is a dislocation? Take a look at the middle finger of your hand. When you curl the finger in toward your palm, you’ll see it has three joints, where two bones come together: the knuckle, where the first finger bone starts; then two more joints before the fingernail starts. If one of the two bones that form a joint is moved out of its normal location, the joint has a dislocation.

You definitely need prompt medical attention if your finger is dislocated or fractured. If your finger is dislocated, the doctor will have to realign your bones. If not, treatment may involve both ice and taping your finger to the adjoining finger or splinting. If a finger bone is broken, it will usually need to be splinted until the break in the bone heals.

If a tendon is partially torn, you will likely need to wear a splint until it heals. If a tendon is fully torn, you made need surgery to put it back together.

We have more information on hand and finger injuries in our Special Health Report, “Hands: Strategies for Strong, Pain-Free Hands.” You can find out more about it here.

If your injury doesn’t warrant a visit to the doctor, manage it with pain medications, such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). Rest, ice, compression and elevation (RICE) will also help limit pain and additional damage:

  • Rest the joint for at least 48 hours.
  • Ice the injury to minimize swelling.
  • Compress the injured area with an elastic compression bandage to provide support and reduce swelling.
  • Elevate your hand above the level of your heart.