Sprained Finger | treatment, taping and recovery

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Sprained Finger | treatment, taping and recovery 2018-01-11T20:00:28+00:00

Sprained finger

By Terry Zeigler, EdD, ATC 

A sprained finger is common in sports with the most common injury being a sprain to one of the ligaments located within the finger. Each finger has three small bones (phalanges) separated by two interphalangeal joints. The thumb is unique and has one interphalangeal joint and only two small phalange bones.

A sprain is an injury to a ligament. Each of the joints located in the finger have collateral ligaments that run along each side of the joints. It is these collateral ligaments that are commonly sprained in sports.

What athletes get a sprained finger? 

Athletes in sports that use balls are the most at risk for a sprained finger including athletes competing in the sports of basketball, baseball, and softball.

What are the classifications of a sprained finger? 

A sprained finger is classified from mild to severe and are diagnosed as first-degree, second-degree, or third-degree sprains.

sprained finger

A first degree sprained finger is considered mild because the ligaments are only stretched and not torn. The athlete may complain of localized swelling and pain around the injured joint. The athlete’s ability to flex and extend the finger may be somewhat limited due to the swelling within the joint. Last, the strength of the finger is usually not affected.

In most first degree sprains, the athlete is able to continue participating in sports. However, the athlete may benefit from taping the injured finger to an adjacent finger to prevent further injury.

A second degree sprained finger results in more damage to the ligament and may also include damage to the joint capsule as well. Because the force of the injury is stronger, the resulting damage may include a partial tear of the ligament and associated joint capsule.

This type of injury results in significantly more swelling and pain. The swelling may extend throughout the finger within the first few hours possibly limiting the range of motion of both joints within the finger. The joint may also be tender to touch specifically over the injury site.

The primary difference between a first and second degree sprain is that there will be laxity in a second degree sprain when the ligament is tested. This means that when a ligament test is performed on an athlete with a first degree sprain, the ligament will be tight. However, a ligament stress test performed on an athlete with a second degree sprain will result in a visual opening of the joint line, but there will be an end point indicating that the ligament is only partially torn.

A third degree sprained finger is the most severe sprain resulting in a complete rupture of the ligament. A full ligament rupture usually occurs at its attachment, but may also occur in the middle of the ligament. In some cases, the bone can actually be pulled away from the distal attachment causing an avulsion fracture.

A third degree sprained finger is often associated with a subluxation or dislocation of the finger. A subluxation is a partial dislocation that reduces itself and the athlete may not even realize that it has occurred.

An athlete will notice a dislocation of the finger because of the amount of pain and obvious deformity of the finger. The initial instinct of the athlete is to pull on the finger to reduce the dislocation. Even if the athlete reduces the dislocation, the athlete should still be splinted and referred for an x-ray.

A third degree sprain will result in laxity and instability of the finger with severe swelling, pain, and possibly discoloration. All athletes with a suspected third degree sprain need to have the finger splinted and then be referred for an x-ray to rule out a possible fracture.

How is a sprained finger diagnosed? 

A sports medicine professional can diagnose a sprained finger given a thorough medical history and comprehensive physical assessment. If a third degree sprain is suspected, an x-ray can be ordered to rule out a possible fracture. 

What causes a sprained finger? 

The most common mechanism of a sprained finger is a blow to the end of a finger caused by a ball traveling at high speed. An example is a basketball player mishandling a pass and catching it off the end of the finger or a baseball player taking a bad bounce off of a groundball and having the ball strike the end of the finger.

The force of the blow at the end of the finger reverberates up the finger to the joint causing the joint to either hyperextend or move sideways. Either one of these movements can injure the collateral ligaments in the fingers.

Another mechanism of injury in sports is catching a finger in a jersey or piece of sports equipment. If the force is stronger than the tensile strength of the ligament, the ligament can be stretched or torn.

What is the treatment for a sprained finger? 

Once a fracture has been ruled out, sports injury treatment using the P.R.I.C.E. principle should be utilized.

For a first degree finger sprain, the athlete should protect the injured finger with a buddy tape job or finger brace for the first 48 – 72 hoursClick To Tweet Ice can be applied for twenty minutes every two hours either through the use of a small ice pack or cold water immersion.

Cold water immersion is effective treatment for a sprained finger because the cold water can surround all of the injured area rather than just one side of the finger as in the application of an ice pack. Cold water immersion can easily be accomplished with the use of a large cup, water, and the addition of some ice. 

An athlete with a second degree sprain should have the finger splinted by either buddy taping the injured finger to the adjacent finger or by utilizing an aluminum splint. The finger should be splinted so that the injured joint and adjacent bones are immobilized. Aluminum splints can be custom cut to fit and bent to accommodate most finger injuries.

Because there is more tissue damaged in a second degree sprain, the finger will swell more and may have some discoloration. As in a first degree sprain, the athlete should utilize the P.R.I.C.E Principle for the first 48-72 hours.

As the swelling begins to diminish, the athlete can begin gentle range of motion exercises to begin to regain the flexibility of the finger. This can be accomplish using a number of different items including a tennis ball, racquetball, or rolled sock.

The athlete places the object in his/her hand and gently squeezes. This exercise increases both the range of motion of the joint plus the strength of the muscles in and around the injured joint. The athlete gradually squeezes the ball and then relaxes. This can be performed ten times every hour.

Care should be taken for the athlete not to squeeze so hard that it causes pain. As the ligament and tissue heal, the athlete can gradually increase the intensity of the grip on the ball.

An athlete with a third degree sprain should be seen by a sports medicine physician and may need to have the injury surgically repaired.

Sprained Finger and When to See the Doctor

Hundreds of athletes sustain acute injuries everyday, which can be treated safely at home using the P.R.I.C.E. principle. But if there are signs or symptoms of a serious injury, emergency first aid should be provided while keeping the athlete calm and still until emergency service personnel arrive. Signs of an emergency situation when you should seek care and doctor treatment can include:

  • Bone or joint that is clearly deformed or broken
  • Severe swelling and/or pain,
  • Unsteady breathing or pulse
  • Disorientation or confusion
  • Paralysis, tingling, or numbness

In addition, an athlete should seek medical care if acute symptoms do not go away after rest and home treatment using the P.R.I.C.E principle.


When can an athlete with a sprained finger return to sports?

Because long term swelling is fairly common in sprained fingers, gaining full flexibility can take a long time. In some cases, the joint can look swollen for up to one year post-injury.

Most athletes return fairly quickly to sport after a sprained finger, but will utilize a buddy tape job to protect the finger from further injury. The finger should be taped to an adjacent finger above and below the injured joint with ½ inch athletic tape. This ensures that the joint is protected, but also allows the athlete to flex and extend his/her fingers as needed.


  • Anderson, M., Parr, G., & Hall, S. (2009). Foundations of Athletic Training: Prevention, Assessment, and Management. (4th Ed.). Lippincott Williams & Wilkins: Philadelphia, PA.
  • Bahr, R. & Maehlum, S. (2004). Clinical Guide to Sports Injuries. Human Kinetics: Champaign, IL

  • i don’t know why my swelling won’t go down and i injured my finger in volleyball. Also it hurts to move and to bend. I tried icing it and taping it but it is still swollen

    • Kevin

      How long before the swollen went down? I got nailed playing soccer and my thumb is still swollen almost a week later!

    • Ruspar

      I did mine 2 weeks ago… still swollen, although not as badly as with the initial injury.

  • Michael Johnson

    It’s been more than 2 months and my finger is still tender. I can’t close a fist.

  • ryan

    Funny this is old and I cannot find anywhere anyone has the same injury as me!

    it’s still swollen and sore 7 months later! My ring finger knuckle get bent sideways. It bends fine all the way and doesn’t really hurt unless you push on the side of it. I can understand perhaps the large knuckle won’t go down but the pain when pressure is applied has to cease at some point??? Doesn’t it??

  • clonish

    Seems like extended swelling is pretty common. I am 5 weeks into a badly sprained index finger. Buddy taped for 3 weeks, now trying to do some physiotherapy to get back full function. Knuckle is still very swollen, cant fully close my fist, still quite painful on extension, and gets achy if I overdo the stretching. A bit disparaging to hear that it could be multiple months, but at least I’m not worried now that i did something worse than a sprain.

  • Pra

    What to do if I want it to recover slowly?????

  • SportsMD

    When the swelling persists, it is important to make sure that there is nothing more serious that has caused the swelling, which is something you should discuss with your doctor. Make sure your finger moves appropriately, which is one of the most important things to look for. If pain and swelling last longer than two weeks or if there’s numbness or coldness in the finger or the fingernail turns blue or gray, see your doctor. Remember jammed fingers can stay swollen for months, even if they are not very serious.

    Consider seeing a physical therapist who will help you develop a programme of stretching, massage and exercises which can improve the situation. For home treatment consider the following exercises:

    Finger passive range of motion:
    Gently bend the injured finger with your other hand. Then gently try to straighten out the injured finger with help from your other hand. Repeat slowly, holding for 5 seconds at the end of each motion. Do this 10 times. Do these exercises 3 to 5 times a day.

    Making a fist:
    Make your hand into a fist and if the injured finger will not bend into the fist, try to help it with your other hand. Hold this position for 5 to 10 seconds. Repeat 10 times.

    Object pick-up:
    Practice picking up small objects, such as coins, marbles, pins, or buttons, with your thumb and injured finger.

    Finger extension:
    With your palm flat on a table and your fingers straight out, lift each finger straight up one at a time. Hold each finger up for 5 seconds and then put it down. Continue until you have done all 5 fingers. Repeat 10 times.

    Grip strengthening:
    Squeeze a soft rubber ball and hold the squeeze for 5 seconds. Do 2 sets of 15.

    Also consider getting a finger compression sleeve which will help reduce the swelling via compression. We’ve provided an example of one from Amazon in our article above. All the best with your recovery!