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How to handle an athlete’s injured finger

Information provided on the blog is for educational purposes only and is not intended to diagnose or offer treatment plans.

A young athlete–we’ll call him Jason–came into our office in November with a significant finger injury. Jason had visited an immediate care clinic where the physician indicated he had injured his finger joint. The finger was splinted and the physician advised him to “follow up with an orthopedic doctor in 2-3 weeks.”

Jason’s mom was concerned with his level of pain after two weeks so she made an appointment to see Dr. Holtkamp the following week. Meanwhile, Jason had remained in the finger splint, not moving the joint. When he visited our office, x-rays confirmed he had fractured the joint. Because he had been splinted in full finger extension for three weeks, the fracture had begun to heal incorrectly, causing stiffness and pain.

This was bad news for a competitive basketball player in his senior year of high school.

Dr. Holtkamp immediately suggested corrective surgery, which would require “re-breaking” the bone and setting it in correct alignment. The procedure would require extensive therapy post surgery and a little bit of luck in order to restore full function of the finger let alone return to basketball this season.

After two surgeries, eight therapy sessions and a lot of hard work, Jason was cleared to return to activity, and he could not have been happier to get back to competitive basketball!

Finger and hand injuries are commonplace in the sports world. According to data from U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission’s National Electronic Injury Surveillance System, 12% of all injuries in youth sports are to the hand/fingers.

So what do you do when your son, daughter, or athlete has injured their finger during a practice or game?

The primary issue with finger injuries is loss of function or range of motion. If the injury involves the joint, which it commonly does, limited and painful range of motion will result. Most athletes and healthcare professionals will splint the finger to protect it. This is a great initial treatment plan. Based on the type of injury to the joint, however, you may want to begin range-of-motion exercises immediately. These exercises consist of moving the finger through its normal range of movement, making a full fist and then extending the fingers fully.

If the athlete has full range of motion (they can make a fist and extend their fingers) and the pain is minimal, then she can typically treat the injury with cold therapy and oral anti-inflammatories (Advil/Aleve).

If the range of motion is limited AND the pain is intense, then there is likely a serious injury involving the bone, ligaments or tendons. It’s best to keep the finger splinted and to follow up with an orthopedic physician.

It is important not to delay treatment because an underlying injury to the joint can result in long-term loss of range of motion.

If there is no fracture and the joint is stable, it is most likely a sprain. The treatment plan for a finger sprain will involve buddy tapping the injured finger to assist with range of motion. If it is difficult to achieve range of motion, the physician may recommend working with an occupational therapist. These therapists specialize in treatment of the hand and wrist.

Return-to-play guidelines involve full, pain-free range of motion. Once the athlete has achieved this, they can return to play. They may want to continue buddy tapping as a means of protection, until the finger no longer has pain and full range of motion is restored.

A finger sprain can take several weeks to heal, and it is important to encourage injured athletes to pursue treatment as soon as possible so they can get back to doing what they love!

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Scott Whaeler

Scott Waehler, ATC, ROT. earned his Masters in Athletic Training from Illinois State University. He currently works as Dr. Kelly Holtkamp's clinic lead where he focuses on helping patients get their lives back.


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