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Is My Finger Sprained or Broken?

by Jaydee Vykoukal, PT, DPT July 13, 2020 0 Comments

Finger with Splint

Wondering how to tell if your finger is sprained or broken? It can be hard to tell the difference. Luckily, there are several key signs that define the difference between these two distinct injuries. Keep reading to learn how to differentiate and identify finger injuries.

Sprained vs. Broken Finger

A finger sprain is defined as an injury to the ligaments in the fingers. It is often caused by hyperextension (bending backward) or a jammed finger from hitting it on something. When ligaments are damaged, it can often affect surrounding connective tissue too such as cartilage and muscle. The symptoms associated with a finger sprain can vary greatly depending on the severity of the injury.

A finger break or fracture, is defined as a direct injury to the bone. It can affect the long phalangeal bones in the fingers and palm of the hand or the knuckles themselves. This type of injury is most common with sports. A break can range from a stable hairline fracture to a complete fracture that leaves the finger grossly unstable.

Sprained Finger

A sprained finger starts with a direct impact that leads to injury of the finger and ligaments. Symptoms are usually worse for the first several days and then gradually get better with rest and treatment. Mild to moderate sprains typically resolve within one to two weeks, whereas a more serious injury will take longer.

How to Identify

Common symptoms that are associated with a sprained finger include pain, swelling, redness, bruising, and throbbing.

Learn more about symptoms of a sprained finger here.

Treatment

For treatment after a proper diagnosis, here are many options for treating a sprained finger , these include:

  • RICE (rest, ice, compression, elevation)
  • Taping or splinting the finger to prevent further injury and provide stability
  • Anti-inflammatory medications (i.e. ibuprofen, Aleve, or naproxen)
  • Finger exercises and stretches to restore function when possible
  • Surgery for severe cases that have lead to finger instability or poor hand function

For a full list of finger sprain treatment, see our guide.

Broken Finger

A broken finger also involves a direct impact to the hand. The impact tends to be a lot higher in force and is most common with sports injuries. However, secondary health issues like osteoporosis can increase your risk of finger fracture too. The best way to diagnose a broken finger is with an x-ray.

How to Identify

Finger breaks typically present with very similar symptoms as a sprain. However, the symptoms tend to be more severe and will not resolve as quickly as a finger sprain. Other additional symptoms that may also occur include:

  • Hearing a crack or pop during the injury
  • Severe pain, swelling, or bruising
  • Loss of normal hand function
  • Finger disfigurements, such as abnormal bending or misalignment

Treatment

Choosing the right treatment depends on the type of fracture. A milder stable fracture may not require any extensive treatment other than rest and a short term splint or taping.

A more extensive fracture will require more support to promote healing. A severe fracture may require surgery to reset the bone and treat other potentially damaged tissues in the finger. 

How Common are Broken Fingers?

Since we use our hands every day, they are a common site for injury from impact, moving incorrectly, or overuse. Broken fingers due to trauma are one of the most common bone injuries seen in the emergency room. While we all carry some risk for a finger fracture, how high that risk is depends on the type of activities you participate in regularly.

Finger Dislocation

Finger dislocation most often occurs when the joint is extended backward too far. It results in stretching of the ligaments and deformity of the joint. Basically, a finger dislocation is a severe sprain that also compromises joint and muscle integrity. It typically results in severe instability of the joint. The first step is to restore normal joint alignment, known as reduction. Splinting will be required for healing and the finger should be assessed for secondary fractures that may have occurred as well.

Proper Diagnosis

If you have sustained a finger injury that results in moderate to severe symptoms, seek medical care immediately. Medical care will help you differentiate what type of injury you have sustained and ensure a safe recovery. Work closely with your physician to promote proper healing. Then, potentially work with a physical therapist when you have been cleared to use your fingers again. With the right tools, your finger will be feeling better soon enough.

Sources:

https://www.aafp.org/afp/2012/0415/p805.html#:~:text=Finger%20and%20metacarpal%20fractures%20are,fractures%20in%20adults%20and%20adolescents.

https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/320450#sprain-or-break

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Jaydee Vykoukal, PT, DPT
Jaydee Vykoukal, PT, DPT

JayDee Vykoukal is a Doctor of Physical Therapy, owner of the healthy habit platform Health Means Wealth, and freelance medical writer. She loves traveling and spending time with her family in nature. Her passion is helping others continue to participate in the activities they love through education and proper exercise.



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