Overview

It’s a common occurrence. You go to catch a football or basketball, but instead of the ball sailing smoothly into your hands, it smashes into the tip of your finger. Or, as you go to close a drawer, you accidentally jam your finger against its edge.

This type of blunt impact may cause a jammed finger, a condition that happens when the tip of the finger is pushed back toward the hand. The momentum from the impact’s force can stretch or even tear the ligaments in your finger, which causes a sprain. Ligaments are tough bands of connective tissue that hold your bones together. If the impact’s force is hard enough, it can cause tendon damage or a bone fracture.

Even if your finger isn’t fractured, the jam can cause it to swell up and be painful. A jammed finger needs to be treated. Sometimes the injury is minor enough that you can take care of it at home. For a more severe injury, you’ll need medical treatment to prevent permanent damage to your finger. It can be difficult to determine if you have a mild or more severe injury. If you’re uncertain, seek medical attention.

Symptoms

If you’ve injured your finger, you may wonder whether it’s jammed or fractured. While both conditions can cause pain, each has unique, but similar, symptoms. This can make it difficult to distinguish between the two.

Symptoms of a jammed fingerSymptoms of a fractured finger
pain in fingersevere pain in finger
difficulty holding anything with the fingerinability to bend or straighten the finger
redness and swelling in the injured areaswelling in the finger that lasts for hours or days

Causes

You can get a jammed finger when you smash your finger against something and the force pushes the tip of your finger down toward your hand. In this case, the proximal interphalangeal (PIP) joint in the middle of your finger absorbs the force of the blow and the ligament in your finger gets stretched.

You might jam your finger playing sports, like when you try to catch a ball. Or, you might jam it doing something as simple as closing a door or pushing the sheets under the mattress as you make the bed.

Complications

A jammed finger can lead to some complications, including:

  • long-term pain and swelling in the joint, known as traumatic arthritis
  • stiffness in the finger
  • weakness in the finger
  • permanent inability to straighten the finger
  • deformity of the joint

Diagnosis

Often you can diagnose and treat a jammed finger yourself. If you’re in a lot of pain or you can’t bend and straighten your finger, see your doctor or go to an emergency room for treatment. These symptoms could indicate a fractured bone or ruptured tendon.

Your doctor will check your finger for swelling, ask about your pain, and see how well you can move it. Comparing the injured finger to the ones around it can help your doctor determine the level of swelling.

Your doctor may order an X-ray to look for any fractures or other damage inside the finger. You may also need an MRI or CT scan to help your doctor to further assess your injury.

Treatment

Your treatment plan will be determined based on the severity of your injury. Here are some steps to take if your injury is minor and you’re able to treat it at home:

  • Apply ice for 15 minutes each hour to bring down the swelling. If you don’t have ice, you can soak the finger in cold water instead.
  • Keep your finger elevated above chest level.
  • Take an over-the-counter pain reliever such as ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil) to ease any discomfort.

If the finger looks like it’s out of the joint, don’t pull on it. Instead, keep the finger in place by splinting it. A splint is a piece of metal or foam that wraps around your finger and keeps it in place. Holding your finger still with a splint prevents you from injuring it further.

Learn more: How to make a splint »

You can also immobilize your injured finger by taping it to the neighboring finger. This is called buddy strapping. A doctor can splint or buddy strap your finger if you’d rather not do it yourself. Keep the finger splinted or strapped until it no longer hurts. This can take about one to two weeks.

For more serious injuries, see a doctor. You might need surgery if you have a bone fracture or a torn ligament or tendon.

After the injury has healed, exercise or physical therapy can help you regain full motion of the affected finger. To strengthen the finger, you can practice making a fist, squeezing a ball, or holding objects in your hand.

Tips for recovery

  • Avoid using the injured finger while recovering.
  • If your finger is swollen, ice it for 15 minutes every hour until the swelling goes down.
  • See your doctor or orthopedic surgeon if your injury is severe or doesn’t begin to heal with home treatment, or if there’s a deformity or loss of function in the finger.
  • After you’ve recovered, use exercises to regain strength to your finger. Try making a fist, squeezing a tension ball, or holding objects in your hand.

Outlook

Most of the time a jammed finger will get better on its own within a week or two. But even with treatment, your finger may stay swollen or sensitive for many months. During recovery, try to use the finger as little as possible while it heals. Take a break from sports or other activities that could worsen your injury.

Once your finger has healed, you should be able to straighten it without any pain.

You’ll have the best chance for a full recovery if you follow the care instructions from your doctor and physical therapist. Without the right treatment, you can have long-term damage and trouble moving the finger.

If you have any questions about your diagnosis or treatment plan, see your physician. The sooner they can make a correct diagnosis and administer the right treatment, the faster your finger will heal.