If you injure your finger while playing sports, rock climbing, or gardening, you may be unsure if you've sustained serious damage, such as a fracture, sprain, or dislocation. Or maybe you simply overused your hands and need to take a break.
How do I know if I've dislocated a finger?
A dislocated finger is usually obvious, says Stephanie Sueoka, DPT, MPT, a hand therapist at University Orthopaedic Center at University of Utah Health. "The finger bones may be bent at strange angles, swollen, and very painful," she says. "You probably won't be able to bend or straighten your finger if it is dislocated."
While dislocated fingers frequently occur with sports-related accidents, this can happen with any injury that causes a "jamming" force to the end of the finger, or by hyperextending the finger beyond its normal range. Either of these situations, or a combination of both, can result in a dislocation. For example, a basketball may strike the tip of an outstretched finger, a finger may get caught in a piece of equipment, or someone may break a fall onto their outstretched hand.
How do I know if I've broken a finger?
"While anybody unfamiliar with dislocations might assume they have a broken bone, fractures and dislocations are very different," says Lana Hutchinson, OT, a hand therapist at University Orthopaedic Center.
A break (or fracture) in a finger bone results in a crack, which must be set to heal. By contrast, a dislocation is not a break in the bone but a separation of two bones where they meet at a joint. Both fractures and dislocations can be quite painful. A hand specialist will evaluate your symptoms and probably take an X-ray to determine which type of injury you have.
What steps should I take to fix a dislocated finger?
A dislocated finger will swell, so it's essential to immediately remove any jewelry, especially rings. Don't delay treatment. If you believe you've dislocated a finger, take these steps:
- Seek immediate medical help.
- Ice the joint. This will help reduce swelling and control internal bleeding.
- Don't try to force your finger back into place. This may damage the joint and the surrounding muscles, ligaments, nerves or blood vessels.
Both Sueoka and Hutchinson recommend seeing a hand doctor or other hand specialist for a dislocated finger. "If you go to the ER, you will likely be splinted and will end up with a stiff finger," Sueoka says. "The worst treatment option is to be positioned in full extension for four to six weeks."
A hand, orthopedic, or plastics specialist will provide appropriate care promptly. They will refer you to a hand therapist who can provide a range of motion to reduce fluid build-up and maximize your functional outcome.
How long will it take for my dislocated finger to fully heal?
Dislocated finger recovery time varies. You can usually return to normal activities, including sports, within a few weeks following injury. But it can take up to three months for a dislocated pinky, thumb, pointer finger, or ring finger to feel normal—and up to six months for the finger to fully heal.
While most dislocated fingers will return to full function, you may still experience mild discomfort for up to a year after the injury. In rare cases, there might be some ongoing swelling of the injured joint.
By following the advice of hand therapists Sueoka and Hutchinson, you'll soon be able to resume your favorite activities—maybe with a little more care and caution to avoid another painful finger injury.