- A jammed finger occurs with direct impact to the tip of a finger and is generally a mild sprain that resolves in a few days
- Some finger injuries can be more serious and require urgent evaluation. Examples would include complete tendon tears, joint dislocation, or broken bone.
- Use The SAFE Method™ (Story, Appearance, Feel, Effort) to rapidly evaluate an injured finger
Catching or getting hit by a ball on the tip of a finger- a football, volleyball, or basketball- is a common way kids and young adults can injure a finger. Fortunately, most finger injuries are reasonably mild and will allow for a quick return to sport. A “jammed finger” is a sprain of the soft tissue structures surrounding a joint. But sometimes a tendon (a structure that links muscle to bone, and cause fingers to move) can be torn, or a joint can be dislocated, or one of the bones broken.
There are some simple steps you can take to rapidly evaluate an injury and make a reasonable determination about whether it’s safe to continue play, or perhaps whether you should seek urgent physician evaluation. At Sideline Sports Doc, we use a simple evaluation for sports injuries that we call The SAFE Method™. The SAFE Method™ is an acronym for Story, Appearance, Feel, and Effort. You use these four points to evaluate pretty much any sports injury. Here’s how you use it for a jammed finger.
Basically this means “how did it get hurt”. Most of the time there will be direct contact to the tip of the finger, that’s pretty obvious. But here you want to be on the lookout for things such as very severe pain, whether you may have heard a pop, or whether you may have felt something crack. Those are all “red flags” indicating that you might have a significant injury. If you have any of those red flags I’d recommend evaluation in an urgent care facility. And if you don’t have any red flags, move on to…
What does it look like? In most typical jammed fingers your finger should look pretty normal in the first several minutes after the injury, this is common with a simple jammed finger. (It may get swollen an hour or two later…) But what if it is rapidly becoming swollen, or if it’s bent at an unusual angle, or if the joint is obviously out of position? If any of those things are what you’re seeing then go to an emergency room for proper treatment. Does it look normal? That’s good, so move on next to Feel.
In “feel” you want to press lightly on the injured joint. Generally this will produce mild soreness with a common jammed finger. But if your light touch feels really painful that’s a red flag indicating the need for urgent evaluation. Significant pain with light touch is often present with broken bones. Are you still doing ok? Then move on to the last evaluation step, Effort.
In this last step you want to make an effort at moving the injured area on your own. For hand injuries this is done by making a fist and opening the fingers out straight. If you’re able to do this fairly easily, that’s good and generally goes along with a jammed finger. But what if you can’t make a fist, can’t open the fingers, or if the joint just won’t move? That could mean a torn tendon, or possibly another significant injury. Get yourself to an urgent care facility.
So if you pass each of the four steps without any red flags or areas of concern you probably have a sprain or a jammed finger. Get home and apply RICE (rest, ice, compression, elevation) and monitor your progress each day. But if things don’t start turning back to normal in the next few days, or if you have concerns that it isn’t healing as you’d expect then it’s always safe to seek proper physician evaluation.