It's easy to injure the ligaments in your finger, particularly if you play sports. Ligaments are made of strong fibers that connect your finger bones to each other and provide stability as your fingers bend and straighten. Ligament sprains occur when these joints are overstretched.
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See your doctor if you injure your finger, even if it appears to be a minor injury. Ligaments can tear and may be accompanied by a bone fracture. Treatment for these injuries depends on the extent of damage.
Finger sprains are graded according to the severity of ligament injury. Grade 1 is a mild sprain with no or minimal ligament fiber damage. With grade 2 sprains, many of the ligament fibers are torn, but part of the ligament remains intact. The ligament is torn completely with a grade 3 sprain.
Symptoms of ligament sprains are generally similar, regardless of the extent of the injury. Pain occurs and may worsen during the first 24 hours after injury. The finger typically swells, making it difficult to move. Bruising may also develop. With a complete ligament tear, you may hear a popping sound at the time of the injury.
After you have been seen by a doctor and diagnosed with a minor, grade 1 finger sprain, you can do several things to help your finger heal. Immediately stop any activities that increase your pain.
Splint your finger by taping it to the finger next to it — called "buddy wrapping" — or use a finger splint available at a drugstore. Apply ice to your finger for 15 to 20 minutes several times each day for the first 3 days after the injury.
Wrapping your finger with an elastic bandage may help reduce swelling. Start at the tip of your finger, overlapping half the width of the bandage until you reach the base of your finger. Be on the lookout for changes in skin color or sensation.
If the tip of your finger appears blue or gray or your finger feels numb or tingly, the bandage is too tight. When permitted by your doctor, gently start bending your finger, working toward making a full fist. Early motion is important, as finger stiffness after a ligament injury may become permanent if your finger is immobile for too long.
Partial Ligament Tear
Grade 2 finger sprains, with partial tearing of ligament fibers, require medical intervention. Partially torn ligaments may heal on their own with proper treatment. These injuries are immobilized longer than a mild sprain, sometimes up to 12 weeks, which increases the possibility of a permanently stiff finger.
Early protected motion — movement that will not further injure the ligament -- is performed under the guidance of a physical or occupational therapist. After the first 3 days of healing, your therapist or doctor may instruct you to apply heat to your finger for 15 to 20 minutes several times each day to increase blood flow and reduce stiffness and pain.
Complete Ligament Tear
An untreated grade 3 sprain leaves your finger unstable, making it difficult to perform daily tasks. It can also lead to chronic pain and early arthritis. Surgery is often required to repair the torn ligament, particularly if ligament fibers enter the joint space.
Ligaments repaired within 3 weeks after injury can usually be sewn back together. However, if more time has passed, the ligament may need to be rebuilt using part of a finger tendon.
Treatment after surgery includes extensive rehabilitation. Initially your finger is immobilized, with early movement performed under a therapist's supervision. Exercises are progressed according to your doctor's instructions, with the goal of restoring as much function as possible.
Reviewed by Mary D. Daley, M.D.