After a long day, it happens: Your finger or thumb locks up. You try to get it to straighten out, but it doesn’t work. Instead, your finger remains bent, as if ready to pull a “trigger” on a power tool or handheld mixer.
The first time, you may think you dislocated or injured your finger somehow. But when it happens again, you wonder if it’s something else.
Chances are it’s trigger finger, a painful, frustrating condition that can affect your ability to get dressed, drive and do other daily activities. Below, we explain what trigger finger is, how symptoms can be managed and how a hand specialist could help.
What is trigger finger?
Trigger finger happens when the tendon responsible for finger or thumb movement becomes unable to slide smoothly in and out of the sheath surrounding it. Also called stenosing flexor tenosynovitis, trigger finger most often affects the ring finger or the thumb, but it can affect any finger. When stenosing flexor tenosynovitis occurs in your thumb, it’s called trigger thumb.
Usually, trigger finger is a condition that can worsen over time and eventually need medical care from a hand specialist to correct.
What causes trigger finger?
Doctors don’t always know exactly what causes trigger finger. But you may be more likely to get trigger finger if you:
- Previously injured the base of your finger or thumb
- Are a woman over the age of 50 years old
- Have diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis or low thyroid function
Symptoms for trigger finger
The primary symptom of trigger finger is when your finger catches or locks in a bent position. But before your finger or thumb triggers for the first time, you might experience some of the following symptoms:
- Soreness at the base of your finger or where your thumb meets your palm, which may be worse after tightly or repeatedly gripping or grasping objects
- Stiffness or pain that occurs when bending your fingers or thumbs
- A lump in the palm of the hand that’s swollen or tender
If your finger joint is hot or inflamed, head to orthopedic urgent care – you may have an infection.
What’s the difference between a dislocated finger and trigger finger?
The first time someone experiences trigger finger or trigger thumb, they often think they may have dislocated it. While both conditions can make your finger look unusual, they happen for different reasons.
If you have a dislocated finger, you have a bone that’s out of place. This is usually the result of a forceful, acute injury to your finger. But, as we mentioned earlier, trigger finger happens when the tendon responsible for the finger’s movement is unable to smoothly slide in and out of the sheath surrounding it. So, a trigger finger can catch with just everyday tasks.
Does trigger finger go away on its own?
Unfortunately, no. Trigger finger doesn’t go away on its own. In fact, trigger finger often gets worse over time. So while you can manage your symptoms, the only way to correct the condition is with the help of a hand specialist.
Hand specialists are orthopedic doctors who focus on diagnosing, treating and even preventing hand, wrist and forearm conditions.
Medical treatments for trigger finger
Typically, there are two trigger finger treatments that a hand specialist may recommend:
- Trigger finger injection – A corticosteroid injection to reduce tendon inflammation that’s causing trigger finger. Most people recover from trigger finger after receiving one or more injections.
- Trigger finger release surgery – Outpatient surgery to surgically separate the inflamed tendon from the muscle in your affected finger. Oftentimes, surgery is recommended if injection treatments are unsuccessful.
“Home remedies” for trigger finger symptoms
The following are things you can do at home to manage your trigger finger symptoms or help you unlock your trigger finger when it catches. But again, for long-term relief, you’ll likely need to work with a trigger finger hand specialist.
Loosen your grip
Forceful, repetitive gripping can make trigger finger worse. Modifying the tools you use can help ensure your activities don’t get in the way of healing. For example, you could put a soft-grip cover over your steering wheel or use pens with a cushioned grip.
Take over-the-counter medications
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like aspirin or ibuprofen can help reduce the swelling and pain related to trigger finger. But NSAIDs shouldn’t be used as a long-term solution for trigger finger or any condition – three months of daily use is really the limit.
NSAIDs are hard on your heart, kidneys, liver and stomach, and can cause some serious side effects when you use them regularly.
Use ice and heat therapy
Both ice and heat can help trigger finger, but they provide different benefits and should be used at different times.
Ice therapy reduces inflammation and is the best choice for new injuries. Heat relaxes your muscles, so it shouldn’t be used for at least 48 hours after you hurt your finger.
To use ice therapy on your swollen finger, wrap an ice pack in a thin towel and put it on your finger for up to 20 minutes at a time. Repeat every 1-2 hours for three days.
Once it’s been a couple days, you can start using heat therapy to relax your muscles. One option is soaking your finger in a warm water bath for up to 15 minutes. You may consider adding Epsom salt to the water. Epsom salt baths are often used to reduce inflammation, but there’s not a lot of research proving these salts make heat therapy more effective. You can repeat heat therapy every eight hours.
Wear a trigger finger brace or splint
A trigger finger brace holds your finger in a specific position and limits how much you can move the tendons in your wrist and finger. These braces can prevent your finger from triggering, but they can also make your finger feel stiff. Also, long-term use of braces or splints can reduce your hand’s strength and movements.
So, it’s a good idea to talk to a hand specialist before using a splint or brace. They can determine if a finger brace could help in the short-term and which one to choose.
Types of trigger finger braces
There are many trigger finger braces you can buy online or at the store. Features to look for include adjustability, a universal fit (ability to be worn on different fingers) and a lightweight material that’s machine washable. The basic types of trigger finger braces are:
- Static splint – Holds the entire finger in a specific position using a form-fitting piece of metal or plastic.
- Stack splints – Keep the tip of your finger in place. This type of splint is usually used when the joint closest to the fingertip is damaged or won’t straighten.
- Dynamic splints – Custom-fitted splint that holds your finger in the correct positions for resting and flexing. These types of splints use tension and are often spring-loaded.
Making a trigger finger splint at home
It’s possible to make a homemade trigger finger splint to hold your finger in place until you’re able to see a doctor or purchase a finger brace.
The easiest option is a buddy splint. You can create a buddy splint by attaching your trigger finger to an uninjured finger. All you need to do is wrap adhesive medical tape above and below the knuckle of the two fingers.
You can also create a static splint at home by taping your finger to a clean popsicle stick. As with the buddy splint, the medical tape should go above and below the knuckle.
Try a trigger finger massage
Can you massage trigger finger away? In truth, gentle massage is usually one of the best options to help unlock your finger or thumb. Here’s what to do:
- Massage your affected finger – Apply gentle pressure and use a circular motion while massaging the base of the affected finger on the palm side for a few minutes.
- Massage the surrounding area – Massage your fingers, hand, wrist and forearm that are connected to your affected finger.
- Massage the knuckle on your affected finger – Hold your finger in a comfortable position and then gently rub across the knuckle in a circular motion. Continue for a few minutes.
- Stretch your fingers – For the most benefit, follow the massage with trigger finger exercises (we share some below).
Essential oils for trigger finger
There’s not a lot of research about using essential oils for trigger finger, but some people find them helpful. The essential oils most often used for trigger finger include frankincense, lavender, peppermint and helichrysum.
To use essential oils for trigger finger, put three drops of the essential oil into a teaspoon of a carrier oil (such as jojoba, grapeseed, coconut oil, shea butter) before massaging into your finger.
Build strength and flexibility with exercises for trigger finger
Rest is super important in trigger finger recovery. But your finger will get stiff if you leave a brace on all the time and don’t move it at all. So, make time for trigger finger stretches multiple times during the day.
The following are some exercises to get you started. You can get an exercise program designed just for you by working with a hand specialist.
This exercise stretches and strengthens your fingers and is especially good for trigger thumb.
- Start by holding a small ball in the middle of your palm.
- Use your fingertips to apply pressure to the ball for a few seconds.
- Release the ball and flatten out your palm.
- Repeat this exercise 3-4 times a day.
This exercise is great for stretching your fingers and wrists. Some people refer to it as the prayer stretch.
- Place the palms of your hands together in front of you so that your fingers are just under your chin.
- Slowly lower your hands toward your waistline until you feel a stretch in your finger and wrists.
- Hold for 10 seconds before bringing your hands back up to the starting position.
- Repeat the stretch 2-4 times.
This exercise targets the finger joint on your injured finger.
- Hold your hand in front of you with your palm towards the ground.
- Wrap your other hand around your sore finger. Your hand should be between your fingertip and the first knuckle.
- Slowly pull the fingertip upwards while keeping your other fingers straight.
- Repeat the stretch 10 times, up to five times a day.
This exercise uses resistance to stretch your fingers and build hand strength.
- Hold your hand flat, then bend your knuckles so your hand forms a 90-degree angle.
- Touch your thumb to your index finger.
- Slide one or more thick rubber bands around your fingers and thumb. connecting them together.
- Pushing against the elastics with your fingers and thumb, open your hand as far as you can. Then bring your thumb and fingers back together again.
- Repeat the stretch 10 times, up to five times a day.
Other therapies that may help improve trigger finger symptoms
In addition to home remedies, some people may find that working with a hand physical therapist or other alternative medicine specialists can help manage their symptoms. Some options can include:
- Hand therapy – Targeted exercises, behavior modifications and activities to improve range of motion in the affected finger or thumb, and to build hand and muscle strength.
- Integrative medicine – Holistic treatments such as acupuncture that can provide temporary relief for your symptoms.