If you wake up with a finger that feels like it's locked in place, you've probably got trigger finger. This common condition makes it difficult to grip things and is one of the main causes of hand pain.
"Sometimes the finger actually catches, and you have to use your other hand to pop it open and straighten it out," says Douglas T. Hutchinson, MD, a University of Utah Health hand and microvascular surgeon.
Depending on the severity, trigger finger can range from a minor nuisance to extreme pain that interferes with daily activities. Fortunately, trigger finger is easily treated and—in many cases—cured.
What causes trigger finger?
Trigger finger can affect anyone, but it becomes more common with age. Diabetes, previous hand injury, and carpal tunnel syndrome also increase your risk of experiencing trigger finger.
Trigger finger causes the finger to lock up because the tendon that attaches your finger to your palm catches on the pulley-like tendon sheath. "The tendon gets thick and swollen and can't slide smoothly under that tight pulley," says Hutchinson. "It's like a rabbit who ate too much and can't fit back into his hole."
What are the common trigger finger symptoms?
In its early stages, trigger finger causes tenderness in your palm at the base of the affected finger. You may also feel a lump in that spot. The most common symptoms are cramping, discomfort, and pain that gets worse when you press on it or grip something.
As the condition progresses, your finger may start locking up—especially first thing in the morning. People sometimes confuse the pain and stiffness of trigger finger for arthritis.
A telltale sign of trigger finger is a finger that feels stuck in a bent or curled position. If your finger is locking up, you may feel the joint "pop" as you straighten the finger.
Can trigger finger affect more than one finger?
You can get more than one trigger finger at a time. The condition can also recur in a different finger after treatment. And despite being called trigger "finger," you can also have a trigger thumb.
According to Hutchinson, the ring finger is the most commonly affected, followed by the thumb, then the middle finger.
Who needs trigger finger surgery?
Trigger finger treatment is necessary to fix the condition. If trigger finger is not treated, the pain, swelling, and stiffness will get progressively worse. In severe cases, you'll no longer be able to straighten the affected finger.
The two treatment options for trigger finger are cortisone injections and surgery.
- Injections of the anti-inflammatory steroid cortisone primarily address swelling and pain. But in many cases, an injection or two is enough to solve the problem. Your doctor may recommend trying one or two rounds of trigger finger injections to see if they cure your condition without surgery.
- Surgery is a "home run," according to Hutchinson. It provides a lasting cure for most people. While any surgery carries some risks, trigger finger surgery is quick and done in the office under local anesthesia. The surgeon makes a small incision in the palm and cuts the tendon sheath to make more room. The tendon no longer catches, so the finger can now move freely.
What happens after trigger finger surgery?
You'll be able to move your hand right away and even drive yourself home. Most people can easily regain motion on their own. But for some, working with a specialized hand therapist helps them improve function and heal faster.
You'll have your stitches removed two weeks after the procedure. Most people can resume all their activities within a month.
When should you see a doctor?
Don't ignore hand pain. The sooner you seek treatment, the better. If you frequently massage your palm to relieve pain or wake up with one or more stiff, bent fingers, you should see a doctor.