How to deal with a sprained thumb

The thumb is vital for grasping and pinching activities. A sprained thumb is an injury to the major ligament in the thumb. The ligaments are the soft tissue structures that connect the two bones to create a stable joint.

Possible causes of a sprained thumb

When an individual falls, it is a natural response to extend the arms to minimize the impact from hitting the ground. The manner on how the individual lands on the hand can either draw out or rip the ulnar collateral ligament. A sprained thumb will weaken the ability of the individual to hold items between the thumb as well as the index finger. Remember that pain may or may not manifest right away. Other possible symptoms include tenderness, bruising and swelling. A doctor should be consulted to ensure that the injury will not lead to lasting pain, weakness and instability.

Sprained thumb

The pain and swelling can be reduced with the application of an ice pack two times in a day for 2-3 days after the injury.

Diagnosing a sprained thumb

Always bear in mind that the ulnar collateral ligament in the thumb can be partially or completely torn. The doctor will try to move the thumb in various positions in order to test the stability of the thumb joint.

An X-ray will also be performed to ensure that the bone is not damaged. A specialized form of X-ray called as stress X-ray will reveal the joint as the doctor applies tension. If the test causes pain, a local anesthetic is given to reduce the pain. In most cases, an X-ray of the normal thumb will be taken to serve as a comparison to the damaged thumb.

Treatment for a sprained thumb

Non-surgical treatment

When the ligament is only partly torn, the doctor will immobilize the thumb using a cast, bandage or splint until it heals. The pain and swelling can be reduced with the application of an ice pack two times in a day for 2-3 days after the injury. If you want to learn more about cold therapy, enroll in a first aid class and CPR course. (Read here for more information about courses).

During the first 3 weeks after the injury, the individual is required to use a cast or splint at all times. After this period, they are removed so that strengthening exercise for the thumb can be started.

Surgical treatment

In case the ulnar collateral ligament of the thumb is fully torn, surgery might be required to restore normal movement.  The surgery typically involves the reconnection of the ligament to the bone.

Once the ligament tears away from the bone, some of the bone fragments are also pulled away with it. In such cases, the bone fragments during surgery are removed or positioned back into the correct position and fixed in place with a screw or pin. After the surgery, a short splint or cast should be used for 6-8 weeks to provide protection to the thumb ligament while it undergoes healing.


When it comes to a sprained thumb, most often ignore the issue hoping that it can heal on its own. In case this injury is not identified and managed properly, it can progress to chronic weakness, instability and even the development of arthritis.


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