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What Is Skier’s Thumb?

Imagine you’re skiing down a mountain — or even along a cross-country trail. Suddenly, your skis hit a patch of ice, and you begin to fall. You stretch out your hand to catch yourself, but you’re still holding your ski pole. The ski pole, held between your thumb and your palm, wrenches your thumb and damages one of the ligaments that connects some of the bones in your thumb. It’s the most common scenario for a very common thumb injury called, appropriately, skier’s thumb.

“Skier’s thumb is a common injury that is typically caused by a trauma to the thumb. This can result in partial or complete tearing of the ulnar collateral ligament of the thumb. Without a functional ligament, normal use of the hand can be painful and challenging, especially activities like pinching or gripping,” said Summit hand and upper extremity surgeon David M. Matson, M.D. “If you think you may have hurt your thumb, early evaluation and treatment is important to improving function of your hand after this injury.”

Of course, there are many non-skiing scenarios that can cause your thumb to bend too far backward or to the side, causing damage as well.

What is injured in skier’s thumb, and what are the symptoms?

Skier’s thumb is an injury to the ulnar collateral ligament. This is a strong band of tissue that connects the bone at the thumb’s base to the thumb’s middle bone. Symptoms typically appear within a few hours of the injury and can include:

Pain in the thumb typically gets worse with movement or use of the thumb.

How is skier’s thumb treated?

Your thumb is so important to grip and your hand’s overall function. It’s smart to have your injury evaluated by an orthopedic or hand specialist as soon as possible. Your healthcare provider will talk with you about the injury, examine your thumb, and order imaging to diagnose the injury and make a treatment plan.

Treatment for skier’s thumb depends on how severe the injury is. If the ligament is completely torn, for example, your orthopedic specialist may recommend surgery. In less severe cases, your healthcare provider may recommend non-surgical treatment options. Non-surgical options can include a brace or splint to immobilize the thumb while the ligament heals.

“The treatment of skier’s thumb depends on the degree of tear to the thumb, which is determined by your clinical exam and/or advanced imaging. Occasionally, immobilization in a cast or brace is all that is needed to heal a ligament sprain, but surgery is sometimes required to repair the ligament to improve stability of the thumb and improve function,” Dr. Matson said. “Ultimately, your surgeon will make a recommendation for treatment based on your symptoms, clinical examination, and imaging findings. Early treatment of this injury is important to improving outcomes and preventing instability and even arthritis from developing in the joint.”