Finger injuries occur in almost all sports but are particularly common in basketball. Injuries to the fingers of basketball players range from minor injuries requiring little or no treatment to severe fractures and dislocations that require surgery. The key to correctly assessing and treating these injuries is to determine the exact diagnosis and initiate treatment quickly.
Finger injuries can result in a variety of symptoms including pain, swelling, stiffness and deformity. However, the severity of the symptoms does not always correlate with the severity of the injury.
In some cases minor injury requiring minimal treatment can produce significant pain and swelling, while in other cases, the symptoms of major injury are minimal pain, swelling and stiffness.
A physical examination and X-ray are two key components that help to accurately assess and diagnose finger injuries that occur during sporting events. Preferably, the evaluation should take place within the first 24 to 48 hours after the injury occurs.
Taping an injured finger to attempt home treatment, followed by a doctor's visit weeks later, when symptoms do not resolve, can delay appropriate treatment and often results in a poor outcome.
RICE (rest, ice, compression, elevation) and immobilization are essential, immediate treatments for almost all finger injuries. Continued immobilization is not appropriate for all injuries. The only way to determine the type of treatment needed is to obtain a physical examination. If the injury is significant enough to cause pain, swelling, stiffness, or deformity (such as a bent or crooked finger tip) it should have an X-ray.
One common injury in basketball players is known as mallet finger. It occurs when the ball hits the end of a straight finger, causing sudden and forceful bending of the tip of the finger. It results in tearing of the extensor tendon from the bone and is followed by pain and swelling with the inability to extend the tip of the finger.
A mallet finger will not heal without appropriate treatment. If left untreated, the injury can lead to permanent swelling and deformity.
Joints in an athlete's fingers also are areas of high probability for dislocation. The dislocated joint often can be put back in place on the playing field; however, dislocated joints require further evaluation to assess for tendon, ligament and bone injury that may not be immediately apparent.
Any joint that cannot be reduced is considered an emergency and requires immediate attention. Any injury that causes hyperextension of the finger can result in a tear of the volar plate with or without a small chip fracture. The injury can lead to significant long-term pain, stiffness and swelling if not treated appropriately.
On the basketball court or on the wrestling mat, there is no sure way to differentiate significant injury from minor injury. Taping an injured finger is not always the answer, and minor swelling and pain does not always mean a minor injury. For that reason, finger injuries should be evaluated by a physician within the first 24 to 48 hours after injury.
Wheeler is a licensed athletic trainer employed by Susquehanna Health, working at Montgomery Area School District. For more information about sports medicine-related injuries, call 320-7456.