Pain in the fingertips can be caused by injuries to the hand and fingers (cuts, abrasions, fractures, or infections), and certain medical conditions.
Most fingertip pain, felt as cramping, throbbing, or achiness, has no serious causes behind it and will resolve on its own within a few weeks. The fingertips are more sensitive to stimuli because they have more touch and temperature receptors than any other part of the body (other than the genitals).
If the pain persists or changes in intensity, or if it’s affecting your daily activities, then it’s best to see a doctor because it might be indicative of a more serious underlying condition.
What Causes Pain in the Fingertips?
The majority of fingertip pain comes from an injury to the hand or, obviously, to the fingertips themselves. An injury can be a cut, a fractured bone, a bruise, or muscle and tissue damage. The most common injuries that result in fingertip pain are:
- A broken finger: Typically caused by jamming a finger during contact sports, like football or hockey, or while handling heavy-duty equipment the wrong way.
- Cuts: Whether from playing sports or working in the garage, a cut, if deep enough, can certainly cause finger and fingertip pain. It will often feel like a throbbing pain in the fingertips once the shock of the cut has worn off. And it will feel warm at the site of injury.
- Broken or lifted/ripped-off fingernails: A ripped-off fingernail is incredibly painful and for months after you might experience a needle-like pain in the fingertips, if not a sharp pain in the fingertips.
Fingertip pain, however, isn’t limited to acute physical causes; sometimes it’s the result of a medical condition. Medical causes of fingertip pain include:
- Frostbite: This is largely an issue only in certain parts of the country where temperatures drop well below zero to the point where human skin can freeze. On really cold days, it can take only minutes before frostbite sets in. Signs of frostbite include white, hard, numb skin that blisters. It requires immediate medical treatment. Frostbite mostly affects the extremities and can cause pain in the fingertips and toes and pain in the fingertips when pressed.
- Raynaud’s disease: This disease causes arteries in the hands and feet to spasm, which in turn causes decreased circulation to the fingers, and results in intense fingertip and finger pain. The causes are unknown, but they can often be linked to another medical condition.
- Carpal tunnel syndrome: This happens when a nerve gets pinched in the carpal tunnel in the wrist. It’s often due to a repetitive strain injury, like working with a computer and mouse for many hours a day. Many graphic designers suffer from carpal tunnel syndrome. Not much can be done to resolve it, other than limiting the use of the wrist and wearing a brace for a short while; some medications might also help. Surgery is considered a last resort.
- Arthritis: Arthritis in the fingers and fingertips can happen, either in the form of osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis. Treatment almost always includes some kind of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID).
- Diabetes: There can be pain in fingertips due to diabetes, most often presenting as a tingling sensation.
Other causes of fingertip pain include: muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, peripheral vascular disease, boils, nodules, tumors, and cysts.
Types of Fingertip Pain and How to Identify Them
There are a few types of finger and fingertip pain, all depending on the original cause. The pain can feel dull and achy (almost distant and not identifiable), or it may be sharp (more likely when a fracture is present) and cramp-like (often the feeling with carpal tunnel syndrome). The pain can start quite suddenly and then disappear just as quickly, or it can linger for up to weeks, which is when a visit to the doctor is a good idea.
1. A broken finger will normally be swollen, purple or blue, and extremely painful. The pain will be jarring and immediate, and won’t quit. In some cases, the bone might have separated into pieces, breaking through the skin.
2. A dislocated finger happens when the bones of your finger or thumb separate from their joints. In some cases, the dislocation can actually be seen because the finger might develop a large bump or be crooked to some extent. Throbbing or sharp shooting pains are often felt with a dislocation, but it can be subdued with an over-the-counter pain relief medication.
3. Medical conditions that affect the nerves and muscles in your arm and hand, like carpal tunnel syndrome, can cause:
- A throbbing pain, and pain when moving the affected fingers;
- Difficulty typing or writing; and
4. A cut on your finger will cause pain at the site of the injury, and depending on how deep the cut is, the pain can spread to other parts of the hand.
5. If there is a growth on the hand, such as a boil, the following signs can often accompany finger pain:
- A tender lump, or a lump filled with fluid, or one that you can move beneath the skin’s surface; and
- A hardened area of skin.
Diagnosing Pain in the Fingertips
A cut is fairly simple for a doctor to diagnose and easy enough to stitch up if it’s deep enough. If you have a growth on your finger, like a boil, nodule, or cyst, a healthcare professional should be able to diagnose the condition based on a physical examination alone.
A visit to the doctor for an unknown fingertip pain might be lengthier and less cut-and-dry than what’s listed above, given that there will be a bit of detective work on the doctor’s part to figure out what’s wrong. In all likelihood, a battery of tests will be done to rule out certain medical conditions and uncover others.
Your doctor will ask questions about your medical history, medications you take, and what you do for a living. Based on this information, the doctor will decide which tests are best for arriving at a proper diagnosis. Try to be as clear as possible with the doctor regarding symptoms and how long they have lasted.
Typically fingertip pain tests include blood tests and X-rays, the latter of which will show if there are any fractures or abnormal growths. If these tests don’t produce a sufficient diagnosis, the doctor may order more imaging tests or may check for nerve damage by ordering a nerve study.
Treating Pain in the Fingertips
When you cut or scrape yourself or suffer from a minor burn, the fingertip pain will typically heal on its own without treatment within a week or two. Over-the-counter pain medications such as Tylenol or Advil can help with the initial pain.
Extensive burns, deep cuts, and some fractures may not go away on their own without treatment. Third-degree burns are usually treated in a hospital with a burn graph and a powerful pain medication like morphine. If the cut is deep, stitches may be required to help it heal better. The pain may last for weeks after treatment for both as the area heals. Follow any orders the doctor gives regarding post-care.
For unexplained finger pain or pain caused by nerve, tissue, or muscle damage, the doctor might prescribe medication. Other treatment options, such as surgery, hand exercises, or splints (often for carpal tunnel syndrome) may be necessary to completely relieve the pain, though it can return and then treatment continues in the same manner. Pain from arthritis can be relieved by doing hand and finger exercises.
Exercises to Treat Pain in the Fingertips
Doing exercises at home for fingertip pain, especially if associated with arthritis, is an effective, drug-free remedy that will make the hands and fingers more flexible, improve hand strength, and improve range of motion. Below are a number of exercises that will help with all three.
1. Making a Fist
This exercise can be done anywhere, anytime once the hand starts to stiffen up. Hold your affected hand out straight, then, slowly bend it into a fist. Hold for 30 to 60 seconds. Then open your hand up until all the fingers are straight. Do this exercise 10 times with one hand then repeat the sequence with the other if needed.
2. Finger Bends
Begin in the same position as the last exercise, with the hand held up straight. Bend the thumb down toward your palm and hold for a few seconds. Release your thumb, then bend the index finger toward your palm. Hold for a few seconds, then straighten it. Repeat with each finger, then repeat the sequence on the other hand if needed.
3. Making an “O”
Point your hand straight up, then curve your fingers inward until they touch. Your fingers will form an “O.” Hold for a few seconds, then straighten your fingers. Repeat a few times a day, and repeat on the other hand if needed.
4. Wrist Stretch
Hold your arm out with the palm facing down. Take your other hand and gently push your hand down towards the floor. You should feel a slight stretch. Don’t be overly aggressive because you can cause injury. Hold in this position for a few seconds. Repeat on the other hand if needed. Do this exercise a few times throughout the day.
5. Finger Lift
Place your hand palm-side down on a table or on another smooth surface. Lift one finger at a time off the table and then lower it. You could also lift all the fingers and thumb at once, and then lower. Repeat eight to 12 times, then repeat on the other hand if needed.
How to Prevent Pain in the Fingertips
Pain in the fingertips, and sometimes specifically pain in the fingertips under the nails, can be prevented by simply being more aware of your surroundings, provided that the cause is something obvious and physical, like banging into something. Some examples:
- If you’re playing contact sports, try to watch how your hand is positioned trying to break a fall.
- When at home and in the kitchen, watch for sharp or broken objects.
- With arthritis, preventing the pain might come with taking prescribed medications and learning a few natural remedies to help prevent pain.
- In winter, make sure your hands are properly covered if going outside on terribly cold days to avoid frostbite.
Sometimes, pain in the fingertips is a result of your profession. Musicians, specifically guitar players, can get pain in the fingertips of the left hand, provided they’re right-handed and use their left hand to fret, and vice-versa for left-handed players. This is typically a problem with newer players who haven’t built up the calluses on their fingertips, but it can happen if you’re using old or rusty strings, if you change the gauge of the strings to something thicker, or switch it up and play bass, which features much thicker, heavier strings.
Guitar players may also consider lowering the action (how close the strings are to the fretboard) on their instruments, to reduce the pressure needed to hold a note, and therefore to reduce any cramps or pain in the fingertips.
When to See the Doctor
If you know the cause of your fingertip pain and it isn’t serious, then you don’t need to see a doctor. If you’ve cut yourself deeply and it’s healed and yet you still have pain and tingling, then you should see a doctor. Frostbite, on the other hand, requires immediate medical attention, so if you suspect that it’s the cause of your fingertip pain, do not delay your visit. If pain in the fingertips has been occurring for a while and you can’t figure out the source, then schedule a meeting with your doctor to find out what’s going on.
Sources for Today’s Article:
“What Causes Finger Pain? 9 Possible Conditions,” Healthline web site; http://www.healthline.com/symptom/finger-pain, last accessed April 4, 2016.
“Pain in Fingertips,” Med-Health web site; http://www.med-health.net/Pain-In-Fingertips.html, last accessed April 4, 2016.
“7 Hand Exercises to Ease Arthritis Pain,” Web MD web site; http://www.webmd.com/osteoarthritis/oa-treatment-options-12/slideshow-hand-finger-exercises, last accessed April 4, 2016.