Ask Dr. Hildahl: How Do You Treat a Jammed Finger?

Learn about why jammed finger injuries require immediate treatment.

jammed finger

When an unexpected impact causes a jammed finger, pain tells you something’s wrong. But with these injuries, there’s a sharp distinction between knowing “something” is wrong and knowing precisely what kind of injury you’ve suffered. As hand specialist Dr. Blake Hildahl explains, the term “jammed finger” covers a lot of orthopedic territory.

What is a jammed finger?

“Hand injuries are definitely complex because the hand is so intricate,” says Dr. Hildahl. “You’ve got a lot of small structures working together, and a lot of little joints. Sometimes, jamming your finger causes a dislocation at the second knuckle of the finger, called the PIP joint. But this injury could affect any of the knuckles. And there is an additional array of potential injuries that include broken bones and ruptured tendons. That’s where we hand specialists come in. We’ve been trained to correctly evaluate and diagnose these injuries.” 

Symptoms of a jammed finger injury

“There are several symptoms to look for if you think you may have jammed your finger,” says Dr. Hildahl. “If you experience any of these symptoms, it’s important to be evaluated sooner rather than later.”

  • The finger won’t straighten or bend all the way. “If, as a result of an injury, you are unable to completely extend, bend, or straighten the finger, that’s concerning,” says Dr. Hildahl.
  • Fingertip pain. Redness, excessive swelling, and pain in the fingertip joint are other indications of injury. If these symptoms don’t resolve in a day, don’t ignore them. “Sometimes, people think that as long as they can use the hand, even if they are in pain, everything will eventually resolve,” says Dr. Hildahl. “But because this injury can involve torn tendons and broken bones, delaying medical treatment can have serious consequences.”
  • Obvious finger deformity. “If the injured finger is crooked or you can see obvious deformity, consult a hand specialist,” Dr. Hildahl advises.
  • Inability to make a tight fist. “I tell people that if they can make a tight fist, that’s a really good sign,” says Dr. Hildahl. “It’s hard to make a really tight fist if your finger is out of place. If it’s uncomfortable to make a fist, it’s time to come in.”
  • If your finger is black and blue, that’s a sign of injury.
  • Prolonged pain. If you continue to experience a lot of pain after 24 hours, Dr. Hildahl recommends medical evaluation.

“The two red flag symptoms are any finger deformity and an inability to make a tight fist,” states Dr. Hildahl. “If you can make a fist with no pain, that’s the best. If you make a fist with some pain, but that pain is gone in 24 hours, you’re probably OK. Otherwise, it’s time for a medical evaluation.”

Actions to avoid with finger injuries

“When we jam a finger, our natural impulse is to pull on it to pop it back in place,” says Dr. Hildahl. “Especially in these days of high-deductible health insurance, it’s understandable that people want to treat a jammed finger themselves and avoid or delay seeing a doctor. Even when they do seek treatment, people frequently go first to their family practice physician or an emergency room or urgent care. All of these choices are understandable. But I don’t advise any of them, and I’ll tell you why.”

Never try to pop a jammed finger back into place

“Resist the impulse to pull on a jammed finger,” counsels Dr. Hildahl. “You don’t know what kind of damage has been done in the joint. There could be broken bone; moving the joint might cause further damage. Instead, make an appointment with a hand surgeon or go to a Summit OrthoQUICK clinic and get an X-ray. OrthoQUICK takes walk-ins, so you’ll be seen right away. Both these options are less expensive than emergency room fees. You could see your family physician, but a good family practice physician will refer you to a hand specialist anyway.”

Starting with a specialist or OrthoQUICK is the simplest, most cost-effective way to make sure your injury is handled correctly from the start, when it’s the easiest to fix.”

Don’t delay treatment for jammed finger injuries

“A lot of people delay doctor visits because their insurance plan has a high deductible,” says Dr. Hildahl. “I don’t blame them. But especially with hand injuries, delaying treatment can cost a lot more on the back end. Without treatment, a fractured finger could heal improperly. Over time, badly knit bones can do enough joint damage to put you at increased risk of arthritis. That’s why I strongly recommend going to OrthoQUICK or seeing a hand surgeon within a week of injury. You will be evaluated quickly and accurately.”

“When you break a finger and come in right away, your injury is like putting a puzzle back together,” he explains. “It’s pretty straightforward. But when you delay treatment for weeks or months, your puzzle has started to heal out of position, and my job is much harder. Also, finger joints get stiff quickly. The sooner you fix the injury and start moving your fingers, the more likely you are to retain function.”

Treatment delays increase arthritis risks

“Perhaps the most significant risk of nontreatment is arthritis,” says Dr. Hildahl. “If you fracture an interphalangeal joint and the bones remain out of place, they’ll wear off joint cartilage over time. Consequently, instead of avoiding arthritis entirely or getting it late in your life, you’ll develop arthritis much earlier. And there are not good salvage solutions for that. It’s possible to replace some finger joints, but replacement is not a perfect solution.”

Summit Orthopedics provides personalized hand and wrist expertise

The function of our hands is integrated through our wrists and arms to our shoulders; a problem anywhere along our arm may have a significant impact on hand function and quality of life. If you experience an injury or uncomfortable symptoms, our fellowship-trained hand and wrist surgeons are here to help. Summit physicians receive the highest levels of training and exclusively provide individualized care for conditions of the hand, wrist, and elbow.

Start your journey to better function and less pain. Find your hand expert, request an appointment online, or call us at (651) 968–5201 to schedule a consultation.

Summit has convenient locations across the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area, serving Minnesota and western Wisconsin. We have state-of-the-art centers for comprehensive orthopedic care in Eagan, MNPlymouth, MN, Vadnais Heights, MN, and Woodbury, MN, as well as additional community clinics throughout the metro and southern Minnesota.

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  • Blake Hildahl MD

    Blake Hildahl, M.D., ATC

    “No operation should be carried out unless absolutely necessary… nor should a surgeon operate unless he would undergo the same operation himself in similar circumstances.” – John Hunter

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