One swollen finger: Causes and treatment

A single swollen finger is most often the result of injury or minor infection. It may also be a sign of arthritis, gout, or a benign growth.

This article discusses possible causes of one swollen finger. It also looks at treatment options and when to contact a doctor.

Breaking, dislocating, or spraining a finger can result in swelling.

If a person has sprained their finger, they will experience pain and stiffness alongside the swelling.

If a person has dislocated their finger, the finger may appear crooked. A dislocated finger may cause the following symptoms:

  • pain
  • swelling
  • numbness
  • difficulty moving the finger
  • bruising and skin discoloration

It can be difficult for a person to know if the finger is sprained, broken, or dislocated. However, a person should see a medical professional as soon as possible if they notice the following symptoms:

  • the finger points at an odd angle
  • the finger appears blue or numb
  • there is a cut and bone is visible
  • there is a cut and bone is poking out of the finger

Treatment

If a finger appears to be broken or dislocated, it is important to get medical attention as soon as possible.

People should not try to move a dislocated finger back into the joint themselves, as this can cause further damage. A health professional can put the bone back in the joint and fit a splint or cast to keep it in position.

For complicated breaks, surgery may be the best option. A surgeon may insert small pins, screws, or rods into the finger to hold the fractured bones together while they heal.

For a mild sprain, rest, ice, compression, and elevation (RICE) techniques can help to reduce swelling and inflammation.

A person may also strap the finger to the one next to it to prevent bending and further injury. If the finger has swollen a lot, wait until the swelling subsides before taping it up.

Mallet finger, also known as baseball finger, describes an injury to the tendon at the end of the finger.

This tendon usually helps the finger to straighten. An injury to the top of the finger can cause the tendon to rupture, resulting in swelling, pain, and bruising.

A doctor will order X-rays to check the damage to the finger and use a splint to straighten the finger until it heals.

A range of infections can cause the finger to become swollen, painful, and hot.

An infection near the nail bed can cause swelling and tenderness. This is called paronychia.

The following may cause paronychia:

Insect bites or stings directly to the finger can cause swelling, pain, and inflammation around the site.

Occasionally stings or bites can develop into an infection if bacteria gets in.

Symptoms include tenderness, heat, and discharge or pus from the bite.

Erythema also occurs around the site of infection. On lighter skin, this appears as red. On darker skin, the surrounding area may look purple or burgundy.

Treatment

Bacterial infections typically require antibiotics.

A healthcare professional may also need to drain pus from the infected area with a small incision. Soaking the affected finger in warm, salted water may also help, along with pain relief medication, such as ibuprofen and acetaminophen.

It is best to get medical attention if swelling and erythema develop quickly after an insect bite or sting, as this can be a sign of an allergy rather than an infection.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), up to 90 people in the United States died because of allergic reactions to insect stings between 2000–2017.

There are a few benign, or noncancerous, hand tumors that can appear in the hands and fingers, causing swelling.

These include:

Enchondroma

This is a bone tumor that begins in the cartilage. It typically affects the long, small bones of the hands and feet.

It is the most common type of hand tumor. Enchondroma is most common in people between 10-20 years, though it can occur at any age.

Symptoms include:

  • hand pain if the tumor is large
  • enlargement of the finger
  • slow bone growth

Ganglion cyst

This is a fluid-filled cyst that forms next to a joint or tendon. Although ganglion cysts typically appear on the back of the wrist, they can also develop at the base of the finger.

They can change in size, and although harmless, can cause pain or a dull ache.

If the cyst ruptures, the area may become swollen and sore for a few days.

Epidermal inclusion cyst

Epidermal inclusion cysts are fibrous cysts formed from keratin and dead skin cells. They present as flesh-colored, firm nodules.

They can occur anywhere on the body, including the fingers.

Giant cell tumor

This is a solid mass that typically forms next to a tendon.

According to a 2019 article, giant cell tumors in the hand are rare, making up only 2% of all hand tumors.

A giant cell tumor can resemble an enchondroma, which means doctors sometimes find it challenging to make a correct diagnosis.

The article notes that giant cell tumors on the hand grow quickly and have a high recurrence rate.

These tumors do not always cause swelling and inflammation but can cause localized pain and limited movement.

Treatment

Treatment will depend on the type of growth.

Enchondromas may require surgery or bone grafting. If there is no sign of growth or weakening of the bone, a healthcare professional may recommend watchful waiting.

Ganglion cysts do not typically require treatment. However, if it is large or causing discomfort, a healthcare professional may drain the cyst or surgically remove it.

Epidermal inclusion cysts and giant cell tumors require surgical intervention.

If a person notices a growth appearing, they should see a medical professional to get a correct diagnosis.

Gout is a common type of inflammatory arthritis that can cause pain and swelling in one joint at a time.

People with gout have high uric acid levels, causing crystals to build up in the body’s joints and tissues.

Symptoms include:

  • intense pain
  • swelling
  • heat
  • erythema

Treatment

A person can treat gout with a combination of medication and self-management strategies, such as:

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an immune system disorder that attacks the joints, causing inflammation, swelling, and pain. It typically affects the hands, wrists, and feet.

Stiffness, tenderness, pain, or swelling in one or two fingers, often around the middle and the base of the fingers, can be early symptoms of RA.

Inflammation from RA can also cause an increase in joint fluid, making swelling worse.

Treatment

There is no cure for RA, but treatment can help reduce symptoms and prevent flare-ups.

Medication may include:

  • disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs)
  • biological response modifiers (biologicals)
  • self-management strategies that help reduce pain and increase mobility.

Septic arthritis is an infection in the fluid and tissues around the joint that causes arthritis-like symptoms. It can occur due to injury, surgery, or bacteria traveling from another area of infection to the joints, such as a finger.

As well as joint pain and swelling, symptoms may also include a fever, erythema around the joint, and warmth.

According to Johns Hopkins, septic arthritis is more common in children than adults. It is also more common in people with other forms of arthritis, such as osteoarthritis and RA.

Without treatment, septic arthritis can result in permanent joint damage, so it is essential to get a diagnosis as soon as possible.

Treatment

A person’s age and general health may affect what treatment is available for septic arthritis. The severity of the infection may also affect treatment options.

It will usually include a combination of:

  • antibiotics
  • draining pus from the joint
  • medication to relieve pain and fever
  • a splint on the affected joint

Other very rare causes include:

  • Osteoarticular tuberculosis (TB): According to a 2015 article, osteoarticular TB represents 5% of all cases of TB. A swollen finger is a rare symptom of TB.
  • Reflex sympathetic dystrophy (RSD): A rare nervous system disorder that can cause swelling and burning pain in one joint, often in the finger.
  • Sarcoidosis: An inflammatory condition that can cause a swollen finger.
  • Malignant tumors: Malignant tumors in the hands and wrists can also cause swelling in the finger, though these are rare.

A person can treat some of the causes of a swollen finger at home.

However, people should seek medical advice as soon as possible if they suspect that the finger is broken or dislocated or if there is any sign of infection.

Many causes and health conditions can cause a single finger to swell, but most are not serious.

RICE techniques can help treat a swollen finger at home, though it may be necessary to see a healthcare professional for further tests and treatment.

There may be a more serious underlying cause for a swollen finger, and some people may require further medical treatment.

Janelle B. Smith

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