Sprained Thumb: Causes, Treatment, and Tips from Physical Therapists

Learn about sprained thumb symptoms, best treatments for a sprained thumb, and healing exercises from physical therapists.

Published Date: May 31, 2024
woman-feeling-pain-in-her-thumb

Sprained Thumb: Causes, Treatment, and Tips from Physical Therapists

Learn about sprained thumb symptoms, best treatments for a sprained thumb, and healing exercises from physical therapists.

Published Date: May 31, 2024
woman-feeling-pain-in-her-thumb

Sprained Thumb: Causes, Treatment, and Tips from Physical Therapists

Learn about sprained thumb symptoms, best treatments for a sprained thumb, and healing exercises from physical therapists.

Published Date: May 31, 2024
woman-feeling-pain-in-her-thumb

Sprained Thumb: Causes, Treatment, and Tips from Physical Therapists

Learn about sprained thumb symptoms, best treatments for a sprained thumb, and healing exercises from physical therapists.

Published Date: May 31, 2024
woman-feeling-pain-in-her-thumb
Table of Contents

You use your thumbs every day. They help with everything from writing or typing to holding a glass of water. They’re strong and resilient and can handle a decent amount of pressure, but they can become injured at times. A common thumb injury is a sprain, which isn’t just painful — it can make it harder to do your day-to-day activities.

“Thumb sprains usually happen when you fall on an outstretched hand,” says Sarah Kellen, PT, DPT, a physical therapist at Hinge Health. While a sprained thumb may slow you down a bit, they can usually be treated at home with simple remedies, such as stretching and exercise therapy. Read on to learn more about sprained thumbs and what you can do to heal from this type of injury.

Our Hinge Health Experts

Sarah Kellen, PT, DPT
Physical Therapist
Dr. Kellen is a Hinge Health Physical Therapist and board-certified orthopedic clinical specialist. She has a special interest in pregnancy and postpartum care.
Jonathan Lee, MD, MBA
Orthopedic Surgeon and Medical Reviewer
Dr. Lee is a board-certified orthopedic surgeon and an Associate Medical Director at Hinge Health.
Maureen Lu, PT, DPT
Physical Therapist and Clinical Reviewer
Dr. Lu is a Hinge Health physical therapist and board-certified orthopedic clinical specialist with over 17 years of clinical experience.

Tap into pain relief. Anytime, anywhere with our app.

Get exercises from a licensed physical therapist and more to relieve your pain. All right from your phone. At $0 cost to you.
Start your app tour

What Is a Sprained Thumb?

“A sprained thumb is an injury or irritation to the soft tissue or ligaments that connect your thumb to your hand,” explains Dr. Kellen. This usually happens when a strong force bends your thumb backward, so that it falls away from the palm of your hand.

Most thumb sprains involve the ulnar collateral ligament (UCL), which is the ligament located on the inside of your thumb joint where your thumb meets your palm, says Dr. Kellen. While it’s a sprain to a small area, it can cause a lot of pain, and your thumb may also feel loose or unstable.

Sprained Thumb Symptoms 

The symptoms of a thumb sprain depend on how severe it is, says Dr. Kellen. But sprained thumb symptoms typically include:

  • Bruising and swelling at the base of the thumb, near the palm of your hand

  • A lump or swelling on the inside of your thumb

  • A feeling of looseness or instability around the base of your thumb

  • Trouble grasping things between your thumb and index finger

Thumb Sprain: A Hinge Health Perspective

You may be afraid to move your thumb after you sprain it. Know this: Movement is medicine when it comes to your thumbs, says Dr. Kellen. “You want to prevent your thumb from stiffening up, and you want to maintain its range of motion,” she says. The best way to do that is through movement. 

If your sprain is mild, it’s okay to do gentle range of motion exercises at home. But if you heard a pop, or it feels unstable, see a medical provider as you may have a more severe sprain, she notes. But whether you’re able to start moving your thumb right away or need a little time to heal first due to a more severe sprain, being active should always play a big role in your recovery. 

“Strengthening and stretching your thumb muscles helps ensure that you can get your thumbs back to their normal function, so you can do everything from skiing to texting,” says Dr. Kellen. It also lessens the chances of a repeat strain or sprain and losing strength and mobility in neighboring areas, she adds. “A thumb sprain doesn’t just affect your thumb. It can prevent you from using your wrist, too, which weakens those muscles.” 

A physical therapist can show you exercises to help you recover faster. You can see a physical therapist in person or use a program like Hinge Health to access a PT via telehealth/video visit.

What Causes a Sprained Thumb?

A sprained thumb is a common sports injury, and research shows they happen most frequently among skiers. (That’s why an acute injury that results in a sprained thumb is sometimes called “skier's thumb.”) “When you fall while skiing, you might land right on your thumb and jam it hard into the ground,” explains Dr. Kellen. But thumb sprains are seen in other sports, too, especially sports that involve catching and throwing a ball, like football, baseball, and basketball. “If a ball hits your hand hard enough it can bend your thumb away from your palm,” notes Dr. Kellen.

While a sprained thumb is often due to an acute injury, it can happen from chronic overuse, too. This type of sprain is often known as “gamekeeper’s thumb,” because it was originally a common injury among Scottish gamekeepers. “If you do an activity that involves a lot of slow, repetitive twisting and grabbing, it can irritate your thumb ligaments over time,” says Dr. Kellen. Gamekeeper’s thumb can also occur from sports that involve a lot of throwing, or just from repetitive daily activities.

Sprained Thumb Treatments 

If you’re in extreme pain, or your thumb joint feels very loose and unstable, you should see a health care provider, advises Dr Kellen. They may need to evaluate your thumb and do imaging tests (such as an X-ray) to determine the extent of your injury. But most sprained thumbs are mild and can be treated on your own at home. Here are some common home remedies for a sprained thumb. 

  • Immobilize your thumb with a bandage or thumb spica (a splint that immobilizes the thumb and sometimes the wrist). This will help reduce pain and prevent further injury. Once two or three days have passed, you may be ready to start doing some of the thumb exercises outlined in the next section. Use pain as your guide with exercise, says Dr. Kellen. A little bit of discomfort is fine, but you don’t want to push through unacceptable levels of pain. As your thumb gets stronger and more flexible, you’ll be able to increase the amount of pressure you put on it. “It is important to keep moving your thumb. Gentle movement promotes blood flow which encourages healing,” explains Dr. Kellen.

  • Ice the thumb for 15 to 20 minutes every four to six hours for the first two to three days after the injury. Ice helps to reduce inflammation, swelling, and pain, especially right after an injury. 

  • Take anti-inflammatories, such as ibuprofen, as needed. These can help relieve pain for the first couple days after a thumb sprain. But avoid using anti-inflammatories long term, as emerging research suggests it may be better to allow inflammation to occur after an injury because it’s part of the body’s natural healing process. As with any medication, talk to your doctor before you use them. You can also consider applying an over-the-counter anti-inflammatory cream, such as diclofenac, to the thumb joint to relieve pain.

  • Keep moving. You may need to rest your thumb for a short time, but you should still move the rest of your body, says Dr. Kellen. Go about your daily life, just know that you may need to modify activities that irritate your thumb. For the first couple of days after the injury, stick to workouts that focus on your lower body, like walking or running.

You might be wondering: How long does a sprained thumb take to heal? It depends on the severity of the sprain, says Dr. Kellen. Mild ones usually resolve within a couple weeks, while a more serious one may take weeks to months to fully heal. But, you should be able to ease back into your normal activities with less pain before your sprain is fully healed.

Exercises for Thumb Sprain Recovery

Get 100+ similar exercises for free

  • Finger Abduction
  • Thumb Flexion and Extension
  • Thumb Opposition and Extension
  • Wrist Bends
  • Isometric Thumb Flexion and Extension

The above thumb sprain exercises are recommended by Hinge Health physical therapists to help you regain thumb strength and mobility after a sprain.

The information contained in these videos is intended to be used for educational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice or treatment for any specific condition. Hinge Health is not your healthcare provider and is not responsible for any injury sustained or exacerbated by your use of or participation in these exercises. Please consult with your healthcare provider with any questions you may have about your medical condition or treatment.

PT Tip: Stretch Your Hands 

You probably stretch your whole body before you do sports like skiing, basketball, or football. But if you’re like most people, you may not think to stretch your digits. Stretching your thumb muscles before activity reduces risk of injury, advises Dr. Kellen. The above exercises are a good place to start if you’ve never stretched your thumbs or hands before. You can do thumb stretches before a workout or before any task that involves a lot of hand movement, like playing an instrument or typing. 

How Hinge Health Can Help You

If you have joint or muscle pain that makes it hard to move, you can get the relief you’ve been looking for with Hinge Health’s online exercise therapy program. 

The best part: You don’t have to leave your home because our program is digital. That means you can easily get the care you need through our app when and where it works for you. 

Through our program, you’ll have access to therapeutic exercises and stretches for your condition. Additionally, you’ll have a personal care team to guide, support, and tailor our program to you. 

See if you qualify for Hinge Health and confirm free coverage through your employer or benefit plan here.

This article and its contents are provided for educational and informational purposes only and do not constitute medical advice or professional services specific to you or your medical condition.

$0 Cost to you

Looking for pain relief? Check if your employer or health plan covers our program

Join more than 800K members and over 1,700 companies that trust Hinge Health to get relief.

References 

  1. Daley, D., Geary, M., & Gaston, R. G. (2020). Thumb Metacarpophalangeal Ulnar and Radial Collateral Ligament Injuries. Clinics in Sports Medicine, 39(2), 443–455. doi:10.1016/j.csm.2019.12.003

  2. Madan, S. S., Pai, D. R., Kaur, A., & Dixit, R. (2014). Injury to Ulnar Collateral Ligament of Thumb. Orthopaedic Surgery, 6(1), 1–7. doi:10.1111/os.12084

  3. Goldfarb, C. A., Puri, S. K., & Carlson, M. G. (2016). Diagnosis, Treatment, and Return to Play for Four Common Sports Injuries of the Hand and Wrist. Journal of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, 24(12), 853–862. doi:10.5435/jaaos-d-15-00388

  4. Gammons, M. (2023, October 31). Ulnar collateral ligament injury (gamekeeper’s or skier’s thumb). UpToDate. Retrieved from https://www.uptodate.com/contents/ulnar-collateral-ligament-injury-gamekeepers-or-skiers-thumb