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Mallet Finger: What It Is and How to Treat It

Mallet finger, also known as baseball finger, is an injury to the last joint on your finger that causes a deformity where the finger appears crooked or drooping. Mallet finger is most often caused by an object forcefully hitting the fingertip and bending the joint too far, which can result in a torn or detached tendon or even a broken bone.

It is commonly seen in athletes who play sports that involve catching a ball, like baseball, basketball, volleyball, or football. However, this injury can happen to anyone, even if you’re just doing a mundane task like making the bed or loading the washing machine. Any action that causes the joint to be forcefully bent can cause mallet finger.

Jammed Finger or Something More?

Whether you’re catching a baseball or just going about your day-to-day activities, it’s easy to get in a rush and “jam” your finger. But how do you know if your injury is minor or something that might need medical attention?

“This is a really common finger injury, and a lot of times people don’t seek medical care because they don’t know what it is,” says Christopher Goodenough, MD,  a plastic and reconstructive surgeon at University of Utah Health. “I would definitely recommend you get checked out for this, because treating it early is easier than treating it later, with potentially greater complications.”

If you have the following symptoms after a finger injury, see a doctor as soon as you can, ideally within a few days of the injury:

Inability to straighten the finger

  • A “drooping” appearance of the fingertip
  • Pain, swelling, or bruising around the area
  • Blood collecting underneath the nail
  • Detached fingernail

If left untreated, your finger could become stiff and have a higher risk of reinjury. Untreated mallet finger can also lead to a condition called swan neck deformity, where the joint below your injury becomes hyperextended to compensate for the flexion happening in the last knuckle.

“All of the tendons that straighten out your finger are an intricate balance of things, and when that balance gets disrupted, it can cause deformities like the swan neck deformity, where you might have trouble actually bending your finger,” Goodenough says.

Treatment and Recovery

First, your doctor will likely perform an x-ray to determine if there is a fracture. Then, they will visually examine your injury to determine if you are able to straighten the fingertip without assistance.

Luckily, most mallet finger injuries are treatable without surgery. The severity of your injury will determine your treatment, but it will likely include the following:

  • Splinting: A common treatment is wearing a finger splint that keeps the fingertip in an extended position. This allows the tendon to heal properly or the fracture to seal itself. You will likely need to wear the splint full-time for several weeks. 

    “You have to be very careful not to flex your finger down when you take your splint off,” Goodenough says. “A simple movement like making a fist or bending your finger with the splint off can tear apart all that scar tissue your body is trying to form, and you end up starting the healing process over.”

  • Cold Therapy: Cold therapy helps reduce swelling and pain. Apply an ice pack to your finger with some kind of barrier, like a towel. Keep the ice on the injury for 15 minutes at a time.
  • Elevation: Elevation also helps reduce swelling and pain. Try to keep your finger above your heart, especially in the first few days after the injury.
  • Rest: Avoid using your injured hand and stop doing the activity that caused the injury until you are fully healed and cleared by a doctor.
  • Surgery: Rarely, surgery is needed to repair a mallet finger. This is usually only needed if there is a significant fracture or tendon damage. Occasionally, pins are needed to hold the bones in the right position.

Expected Outcomes

With prompt and proper medical treatment, most people with a mallet finger injury make full recoveries and can resume normal activities after a few weeks of healing.

Your doctor may suggest physical therapy exercises that will relieve stiffness and strengthen the muscles in your hand after inactivity during recovery.

When you are cleared to return to normal activities, avoid another injury by wearing proper protective gear, such as gloves when playing sports.