Sprained Wrist or Thumb | Orthopaedics | Loyola Medicine

Sprained Wrist or Thumb

Overview and Facts about Sprained Wrist or Thumb

A sprained wrist or thumb is a common injury to a ligament, the strong, fibrous tissue that connects bones to other bones. A sprained wrist occurs when the wrist bends or twists forcefully, causing the ligaments supporting the wrist to stretch and tear. Similarly, a sprained thumb occurs when the ligaments supporting the thumb tear or stretch beyond their limits, typically when a strong force bends the thumb backward, away from the palm of the hand.

Signs and Symptoms of Sprained Wrist or Thumb

Wrist and thumb sprains share several similar symptoms. Signs of a sprained wrist include:

  • Pain
  • Swelling
  • Bruising
  • A feeling of warmth around the wrist
  • A feeling of popping or tearing inside the wrist
  • Tenderness when touched

Most thumb sprains involve the ligament located on the inside of the knuckle joint, known as the ulnar collateral ligament. Symptoms depend on the severity of the injury and may include:

  • Pain and tenderness
  • Bruising
  • Swelling, especially at the base of the thumb

If the ligament tears completely, the thumb may feel unstable, and you may have difficulty picking up objects. A lump or swelling may also develop on the inside of the thumb.

Causes and Risk Factors of Sprained Wrist or Thumb

Wrist and thumb sprains most often occur after falling onto an outstretched hand. This may take place during sports and recreational activities or simply when trying to break a fall. Sprained thumbs are also common in skiers and in athletes who participate in sports that involve catching and throwing a ball.

Tests and Diagnosis of Sprained Wrist or Thumb

To diagnose a wrist or thumb sprain, your physician will ask you to describe your symptoms and how and when the injury occurred. They will examine your wrist or thumb to assess how it moves and to check for areas of pain and tenderness.

Imaging tests, including X-rays, MRIs, or CT scans, help the doctor confirm their diagnosis. An arthrogram, which involves injecting dye so the joint and ligaments show up more clearly, may also be ordered for a suspected wrist sprain, and a stress X-ray can be used to diagnose a sprained thumb. A stress X-ray involves applying tension to the thumb during the X-ray to test the stability of the joint.

Treatment and Care for Sprained Wrist or Thumb

Much like many other orthopaedic conditions, treatment depends on the severity of the sprain. Mild sprains heal with the following conservative treatments:

  • Resting the affected area as much as possible for 48 hours
  • Applying a cold pack immediately to the area to help keep the swelling down, then using cold packs for 20 minutes at a time, several times a day
  • Wearing an elastic compression bandage to help reduce swelling
  • Elevating your hand above your heart as often as possible

Moderate wrist and thumb sprains may require immobilization with a wrist splint or a thumb spica cast. Severe sprains may require surgery to repair a completely torn ligament.