Ouch! You’ve injured your thumb, and it is painful! You’re no doubt wondering a few things: first and foremost, how to ease the pain, and second, what exactly is wrong with your thumb. After all, you want to be as informed as possible to recover safely and quickly, so you can be back enjoying your favorite activities in little to no time whatsoever. This article will brief you on the medical basics of a broken thumb, the immediate steps you should take to ensure your good health, and how you can continue to relieve your pain in the days and weeks that follow the incident.

How Do You Know If Your Thumb Is Broken?

To fully answer this question, you should be familiar with the primary anatomy of a thumb. The thumb is made up of two small bones called the distal and proximal phalanges, which correlate with the bone on the tip of your thumb and the one underneath that respectively. Beneath the proximal phalanx is the metacarpal bone, which then connects to the trapezium, a wrist carpal bone. When a thumb is broken, at least one of the three primary thumb bones (distal phalanx, proximal phalanx, and metacarpal) is fractured, and when the fracture occurs near the joints connecting these bones, the pain can be far more severe. A broken bone is quickly attended to by the chemical reactions within your body — a blood clot will form at the break and clean away bone fragments, a soft callus will emerge and construct itself around the fracture, and eventually, a hard callus forms, adding new minerals to make it harder.

Generally, a thumb will be broken when it is jammed or bent back too far, which occurs quite frequently in contact sports such as hockey and football, and even in less risky sports such as volleyball or basketball. In the event of an injury, there are some telltale signs that your thumb may be broken. Swelling, throbbing, and tenderness to the touch are all good indicators, as is the inability to move or bend the thumb without pain. Your thumb may appear misshapen, and in some cases, people report a numbness or general cold feeling in their thumb. If you exhibit any of these symptoms, there is a chance that you’ve broken your thumb. Fear not! There are many things you can do to help the pain go away and to get you back in action.

What Are the Next Steps?

The immediate response to an injury like this should be a quick icing. When you ice a broken bone, the cold helps the swelling go down, relieving you of some sharper pain. If there is great pain whenever the thumb is moved, you may want to consider getting assistance in making a homemade splint. Find a long object that is hard to bend, such as a board or a rolled-up towel, and something you can fasten the splint with, such as string or strips of cloth. Position your thumb on the splint and tie it in place so it cannot move. Once ice is provided and a splint is fashioned if necessary, you should consult a doctor. Too many people think that an injury like a broken thumb is minor enough to take care of it themselves, and they can end up with permanent pain or poorly aligned bone structure as a result. To avoid this, calling a doctor to inquire about your specific injury is incredibly important.

The doctor will want you to pay him or her a visit and will perform a visual examination of the thumb. He or she will have you bend your thumb as much as possible to study its motion and check for a ligament tear, which is a sign of a sprain. X-rays may also be ordered to better understand the break. When it is evident that your thumb is indeed broken, a splint or cast will probably be administered to hold the bone in place as it heals. A Spica cast is typical for thumb injuries, as it ensures the bones are secured while also allowing great flexibility in the thumb, making it possible to do daily tasks such as reading, eating, or brushing your teeth. When your thumb is set in place, you may be sedated or administered anesthesia in order to avoid sharp pain during the process. This treatment of aligning the bone without entering the skin is called closed reduction.

Some thumb injuries are more serious than others and may require surgery, which is called open reduction. Again, this is up to a specialist’s best judgment, but if surgery is needed, chances are it won’t be too inconvenient. Generally, pins and wires are used to aid in realigning the bone, and then a cast is put on to keep the thumb in place. In the case of a Bennett fracture, there is a singular broken fragment of the bone, and screws or wires are inserted through the skin to hold the bone in place. In a Rolando fracture, there are multiple broken fragments, and a plate and screws are necessary to fix the break. If the plate is positioned inside the skin, this is called open reduction with internal fixation. Sometimes a plate will need to be applied outside the skin, which is called open reduction with external fixation.

Whether you get surgery or not, you will most likely end up wearing some sort of cast or splint for three to six weeks, depending on the extent of your injury. Children often recover faster than adults because of the consistent bone growth in their development. Any pins should typically be removed at the end of six weeks.

Continued Healing

a hand of man lifted

Even once the structural aspects of your bone are fixed, pain and discomfort can still be prominent. Luckily, there are several remedies you can try to relieve pain on your own. As always, ice can help with any swelling that occurs. Soaking your thumb in warm water can soothe the pain even more, and it helps increase mobility in your joints.

There are also several thumb exercises you can do that will assist you in regaining movement and flexibility. One of the more popular exercises is touching your thumb to your index finger, then your middle finger, all the way down the line to your pinky and back again. Another is alternating between stretching your thumb to the far side of your palm and as far outwards as it will go. Your doctor may have more recommendations that are specific to your injury. In any case, exercises like these have been proven to help return your thumb mobility to its former glory.

While most thumb breaks have little to do with bone density, it is still a good idea to make sure your calcium levels are satisfactory. Deficiencies and diseases like osteoporosis can heighten the risk of breaking a bone, as they make your bones more fragile. If osteoporosis is a problem for you, medication is the typical route to take, with brand names like Fosamax often prescribed by a doctor. To avoid general calcium deficiencies, be sure to eat foods rich in calcium such as dairy products, almonds, beans, lentils, and seeds. Furthermore, refraining from smoking cigarettes will help your body regain its ability to absorb calcium, in addition to the many other benefits of quitting.

A complication that could arise from your broken thumb is the heightened risk of arthritis, and while this does not occur in every situation, it is always best to be cautious and make a follow-up appointment with a doctor or a surgeon. If arthritis is a concern for you, there are many options available to help manage the condition. Splints can be worn on a regular basis to avoid discomfort in the movement of your thumb, and anti-inflammatory medication can be prescribed. In accordance with the basic principles of treating a broken thumb, the treatment of arthritis centers on minimizing pain in the region. Regardless of the outcome of your injury, continued practices like these can truly make a difference in the pain you experience.

Take Care of Yourself

nurse bandaging patient`s wrist

An injury to the thumb might appear trivial in comparison to more intense sports injuries, but it is imperative that you follow the proper procedures so as to make the recovery process as smooth as possible. To recap, you should ice the injury immediately to reduce swelling and pain, and if deemed necessary, a handmade splint can be constructed using some sort of long, stable object upon which to rest the thumb and some sort of tying apparatus to hold it in place. A doctor should be consulted, and he or she will determine whether surgery is necessary or not. A cast will be worn for several weeks, and to aid in healing at home, you can do several exercises to increase mobility. Applying the information in this article to your injury will aid you in your healing, and remember — when in doubt, it never hurts to ice. 

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