Is My Thumb Broken or Sprained?

Breaks & Fractures

Jun 8, 2020


Anyone who’s lived long enough can attest to the fact that hurting your fingers or toes can be an excruciatingly painful experience. For such small body parts, stubbing them will make you yell out in pain. However, in many instances, waiting it out and icing the area will do the trick. But, what happens if you have a more serious injury? What if you’ve sprained or broken your thumb? What are the telltale signs of each type of injury, and what’s the best form of treatment?

Anatomy of a Thumb

The thumb is the finger with the greatest range of motion. It’s composed of the trapezium (at the base of the thumb, closest to the wrist), which connects to the carpometacarpal joint (the joint at the base), then to the first metacarpal (the joint that allows you to bend the joint at its halfway point). Finally, you have the proximal phalanx, which is the tip of the thumb. All of these bones are connected to muscles by ligaments. Whether you sprain or fracture a thumb depends on which part of the finger was injured.

Symptoms of a Sprained Thumb

One of the most common thumb injuries is a sprain — which is what happens when you injure one of the ligaments. This can occur when hitting your thumb forcefully against a hard surface causes the ligaments to get stretched beyond their normal range. Other common causes include playing sports, breaking a fall with outstretched arms, or bending your thumb too far back. There are three types of sprains:

  1. Grade 1 —This is a mild sprain, where the ligaments are stretched but have not experienced any tears.
  2. Grade 2 —This is when there is a partial tear to a ligament. A telltale sign is a limited range of motion.
  3. Grade 3 —This is when the ligament is completely torn or pulled off the bone. To repair, surgical care is necessary.

Symptoms of a sprained thumb can vary in intensity. They often include:

  • Pain and discomfort at the base of the thumb
  • Bruising at the base of the thumb
  • Swelling at the base of the thumb
  • Stiffness
  • Tenderness of the thumb, towards the palm of your hand
  • If the ligament is completely torn, the end of the torn ligament may cause a lump on the thumb

Treatment for a Sprained Thumb

If the sprain is minor — you can still move your thumb and the pain and swelling subside with rest — you can use the RICE method at home: rest, ice, compression, and elevation.

Do not use your hand for two or three days. Ice it for 20 minutes at a time. When doing so, wrap the ice in cloth instead of placing it directly on the skin. Wear an elastic compression bandage, and keep your hand at chest level as often as possible. All of these practices will help minimize swelling.

Symptoms of a Broken Thumb

A fractured thumb can range from a hairline break to bone piercing the skin. If the environment around you was quiet enough when the injury occurred, it’s possible to actually hear the bone-cracking as it breaks. Some of the most common causes of a broken thumb include falling and landing on your thumb, playing sports, a car accident, or excessive twisting. It’s also possible to fracture your thumb if you have a history of bone disease. Symptoms of this type of injury include:

  • Intense pain
  • Immobility of the thumb
  • Deep bruising
  • Swelling
  • Tingling and/or numbness
  • Thumb looks misshapen
  • The thumb may feel cold to the touch

Treatment for a Broken Thumb

If you suspect a broken thumb, do not attempt to treat it exclusively at home. Some types of fractures may require surgery — especially if the injury was at the base of the thumb. In more severe injuries, it may be necessary to install screws to stabilize the thumb. If the injury was on another part of the finger, an orthopedic doctor may have to manipulate the thumb to correctly align bones. You may also need to wear a cast for up to six weeks to ensure proper healing. Depending on the type of injury, you may need physical therapy once the cast is removed — or you’ve healed from surgery — to restore your full range of motion and to strengthen the thumb.

When to go to the ER for a Sprained or Broken Thumb

Seek emergency care if signs of a Grade 3 sprain or a fracture are visible through the skin and/or if you’ve lost your range of motion. A bone fracture will need to be realigned and immobilized by a cast, while a torn ligament will require surgery for reattachment. Failing to do this could lead to complications such as deformity, chronic pain, arthritis, stiffness, and/or permanent disability.

24-Hour Emergency Room Services in Colorado Springs and Texas

If you’ve injured your thumb or other small appendage and the symptoms are not subsiding, let us help you. If you have questions or need immediate treatment, your nearest Complete Care location is ready to help, no matter the time of day or night. We offer a variety of services to help you and your family in your time of need. No appointments are necessary.

Find the Complete Care location nearest you.