SNAP! It’s time to wake up, and your finger is stiff. Joint pain has arrived, and it seems to be most prominent in one of your fingers, locking it in a crooked position. The pain is intense, and straightening your finger is suddenly harder than you remember. Unfortunately, you’re staring down another day of preparing meals, answering emails, and texting gentle reminders to your husband that the grass isn’t going to cut itself. You simply don’t have time to deal with uninvited pain today.
Luckily, you don’t have to.
Finger pain upon waking might have you longing for your early 20s, when the worst thing you experienced in the morning was offensively bad breath. If your finger is snapping, popping, or locking (and not in a fun hip-hop way), especially when first waking, you could have a condition called trigger finger.
Very simply, trigger finger is an inflammation of the tendon or sheath around the tendon in one (or more!) of the fingers on the hand. In this article, we will go over why and how trigger finger occurs, and offer some easy (and affordable!) ways to relieve trigger finger pain today.
WHAT IS TRIGGER FINGER?
Trigger Finger occurs when the tendon on the affected finger becomes inflamed. The job of the tendon on each finger is to help you extend and retract your fingers - it’s the reason you’re able to grab a can of soda or catch a baseball. When the tendon, or the sheath surrounding the tendon, becomes inflamed, the finger can catch or lock up when opening or closing. This results in the pain known as trigger finger.
If trigger finger is left untreated, the tendon can continue to inflame and form tiny bumps or nodules on the finger. This causes more intense pain, and even more locking up.
In the grand scheme of cool surprise pains of aging, trigger finger may sound relatively minor. However, if you’ve struggled with trigger finger, you know that this “minor” condition can be irritating and occasionally debilitating. Very few jobs and activities do not involve use of the hands, and hand pain can slow you down in work and play.
If you’re reading this and nodding vigorously, know that we are here to help manage your trigger finger pain! We’re going to cover how and why certain people are susceptible to trigger finger, and the best ways to treat this painful condition (affordably, and from home). We understand that minor conditions don’t FEEL minor when they’re happening to you, and losing motion and feeling in your hands can affect you mentally just as much as physically. The Dr. Frederick’s Original team wants to improve your quality of life - and hopefully get you back to the original you in no time.
If a diagnosis of “trigger finger” doesn’t sound particularly intimidating, note that this condition is also known as stenosing tenosynovitis. That’s a mouthful, isn’t it? Sure, it’s more commonly known as trigger finger, but if you want to impress your friends and your doctors, practice saying stenosing tenosynovitis in the mirror a few times.
You’ll be the talk of every cocktail hour! (We cannot guarantee this.)
WHO GETS TRIGGER FINGER?
The main cause of trigger finger is inflammation. The flexor tendon in the finger, or the sheath that protects the tendon, becomes inflamed, which limits the tendon’s ability to do what it was meant to do - glide effortlessly as you move your finger. This causes the finger to lock up, and this is also why just snapping the finger back into place is not much of a cure (though it can help temporarily). Tendons are meant to remain lubricated within their sheath, and when that process is interrupted, pain can occur. To make everything worse, using the afflicted finger causes MORE inflammation, which can cause even more pain, or even lead to bumps or nodules forming on the finger joint itself.
In short, it’s just no fun at all.
Now that you understand the root cause of trigger finger, let’s take a quick peek at WHO is most susceptible and why.
Most commonly, people who are diagnosed with trigger finger are those who frequently use their hands in repetitive motions. Those who work industrial jobs, desk jobs that require typing, play a musical instrument, or grip writing or drawing utensils tend to be at the highest risk for trigger finger. The more pressure a person places on those tendons, the more likely it is that the tendons will inflame.
Quick Hits: Trigger Finger Commonly Effects:
Industrial workers, those with office or factory jobs, or any repetitive motion careers
Writers and Artists
People with Diabetes
Additionally, people with related joint inflammation conditions report more trigger finger. Those with arthritis, carpal tunnel, or gout frequently find a little trigger finger bonus alongside their main condition. Any condition where inflammation is present in joints, especially hand joints, can put a person at higher risk for trigger finger.
Diabetes & Trigger Finger
Another condition that often inspires trigger finger is diabetes. Diabetes is a condition in which the body can no longer regulate insulin, which raises glucose (sugar) levels in the body. Diabetics have to control insulin on their own, through diet and medication. A too-high glucose level can wreak havoc on the body, and one of the side effects is inflammation in tendons. Some sources estimate that 10% of those with diabetes also have trigger finger!
Pregnancy, Postpartum & Trigger Finger
Pregnant or postpartum people can also suffer from trigger finger.
Pregnancy often causes the body to retain fluids, which is why pregnant people often get those hilariously swollen pregnant feet and ankles. The hormones released during pregnancy are also responsible for new aches and pains, as the body begins loosening joints to make pushing out a human slightly easier. Carpal tunnel is a common pregnancy symptom, and by extension so is trigger finger. Just another gift for the miracle of childbirth.
Postpartum and breastfeeding folks also struggle with conditions like trigger finger - for similar hormonal reasons. Additionally, holding and cradling a new babe (while amazing!) is another one of those repetitive stress activities that puts pressure on already sensitive joints. The good news: trigger finger during and after pregnancy usually clears up on its own.
PREVENTING TRIGGER FINGER
By now you’ve learned why the heck trigger finger occurs, and my guess is you’re wondering - ok but how can I AVOID this? I have things to do, and I don’t have time for locking up my fingers.
Quick Hits: How to Prevent Trigger Finger
Rest! Take breaks from repetitive tasks.
Stretch your hands
Adjust your positioning, or switch tasks for a bit
Eat low-salt foods
Prevention is not always possible, but there are definite steps that you can take in order to keep this condition at bay. If you have a repetitive job, take breaks and stretch your hands, or even try a new position or activity for a while. This, of course, depends on the nature of the job, but even a few minutes each hour just flexing and stretching can go a long way toward preventing trigger finger from appearing or progressing.
And because the best way to fight inflammation is diet, try to eat low-salt foods and stay hydrated.
I know. I know.
I sound like your mother, but drinking enough water is extremely helpful for maintaining your health. And it wouldn’t hurt you to eat a salad once in a while.
DIAGNOSING TRIGGER FINGER
Like many minor conditions, trigger finger sufferers probably have a strong hunch before they even see a medical professional. Still, it’s wise to see a doctor to make an official diagnosis, and a real doctor who knows you and your medical history is always going to be a better source than the internet. That said, if you are experiencing a finger (or fingers) locking up or getting stuck, and the pain and discomfort is generally worse in the morning, AND you’re a member of one of the higher risk groups discussed above, there’s a good chance trigger finger is the culprit for your hand pain.
HOW TO TREAT TRIGGER FINGER (FROM THE COMFORT OF HOME)
Be honest - you jumped ahead to this part, didn’t you? You skipped right over the WHY and now you’re going for the HELP ME. That’s ok. Unlike your parents when you came home with a nose ring, we are not here to judge. We’re here to help. (And we think the nose ring looks great!).
Most cases of trigger finger can be treated easily, and without complicated medical intervention. Of course, we always recommend seeing a doctor and getting professional non-blog related advice, but the good news is treating trigger finger is often affordable and able to be done from home. There are a few easy things an afflicted person can do to relieve the pain and reduce inflammation, and the great part is you can do them while binging your favorite TV show. Just make sure you have a friend or partner available to help hold your glass of wine or adjust the volume for you, since your hands are going to be busy! (They won’t be THAT busy, but if you want to use trigger finger as an excuse to have someone wait on you, we here give you full permission.)
One quick note about all of these techniques - listen to your body! If stretching is causing more pain, rest instead. If a splint doesn’t provide relief, try gloves instead. Sometimes one thing will work, and sometimes you may want to try something else. You wouldn’t eat tacos for dinner every night, right?
Well, maybe a bad example, but you understand what we mean. Listen to yourself, and find out what works for you.
Our first recommendation for treating trigger finger at home is good old fashioned rest. Remember that one of the causes of trigger finger is overusing that tendon, and like any injury, time will reduce swelling on its own. Also, like any injury, using the injured part more is only going to create more pain. So, the more repetitive stress you are putting on that already-sore finger, the less likely it is that you’re going to feel better. Give your body some time to bounce back - take time off from texting or typing, or the stressful activities you are doing that caused trigger finger to flare up on its own. Remember that repeated gripping will lead to more pain, and instead place your delicate hands on pillows and avoid hurting yourself further. A day or two off of work in order to heal and repair might just be worth it!
Sometimes that is easier said than done. Jobs (or children) can be demanding, and taking some time to rest your hands isn’t always practical. We absolutely understand. Remember that even taking a couple of minutes each hour to rest and stretch will go a long way. Additionally, if you can find other tasks to do at work, adjust your grip, or even try a more ergonomic keyboard, you can certainly continue working while avoiding making the pain worse.
If your injury is severe enough, and your employer is accommodating enough, you should be able to speak to them about breaks or time off. If that isn’t an option, don’t panic: we have some other options for you!
If you must continue using your hands, or the pain is more severe beyond what rest can help, compression gloves may be useful.Compression gloves work by providing gentle pressure to the hand, allowing the wearer to continue their daily life while halting inflammation and pain. Compression gloves are often fingerless, so users can still type, text, or grasp objections without having to take them off and on. They can even be padded, to provide hands a little extra comfort and cushioning, especially when wearers need to go to work but don’t want to make trigger finger worse.
Ever forget to stretch before a workout and wind up pulling a muscle? That’s because our bodies are only semi-well oiled machines, and warming up the muscle and body before forcing it to work is an absolute necessity. You probably see where we are going with this, don’t you?
Stretching is important!
In fact, it might be the most important thing on this list.
Trigger finger can cause the finger to lock up, which causes pain. Stretching, and gentle exercises, can help restore some of the mobility in the affected finger. In the morning, stretch out your hands, spreading your fingers open and then closing them again in a fist.
Use one hand to gently pull back the fingers on the other hand to stretch the tendons in the palm itself. Rotating wrists (again: gently!) can also help relieve some of the pressure that spreads up into the fingers.
Stretching will help to warm up the tendon, and make it easier to move. This can help relieve pain, especially when it is most stiff following a great night of sleep (or an... okay night of sleep).
And yes, it has not escaped our notice that rest and stretching seem like contradictory instructions. In fact, they are both helpful - and especially useful together. Stretching can help improve mobility, which stops pain from worsening. Resting gives your hands a break from the stresses and activities that make the pain and inflammation worse. Both involve being aware of your body and what it's trying to tell you. Unless it’s telling you to have tacos for dinner every night.
If the pain is severe enough that simply resting the finger is no longer providing relief,a trigger finger splint may be the product for you! These are affordable, comfortable little devices that keep the finger straight, helping to reduce pressure and pain. Splints are designed to limit mobility, meaning your finger will remain extended, supported by the splint. This allows the tendon to rest and heal, even if you need continued use of your hands.
The great thing about a splint is it will keep your finger steady while you go about everyday life - meaning you can type, text, or bottle feed that needy baby without worrying you are making your inflammation worse.
Some wearers use the splint during the day, while others prefer to keep it on overnight. Most splints come with instructions for best use, but you should also check with your doctor for what they recommend!
If you’ve come this far, chances are you are wondering for quicker fixes to trigger finger pain. Specifically, drugs. (And no, not the “fun” drugs - we are talking legal, over-the-counter ones here!). OTC medication can absolutely help with the pain associated with trigger finger. Ibuprofen can reduce swelling, and othernon-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are helpful in controlling pain - especially if you have a long work day, or need the pain reduced to help get to sleep.Please note, however, NSAIDS are not recommended for pregnant people, so speak to your doctor about safe alternatives.
However, medication is only a temporary fix. It may help for a little while, but it will lose its effectiveness if taken too frequently. Additionally, depending on the severity of your trigger finger, it may only act as a band-aid. The pain will return if the trigger finger isn’t properly treated. So, on occasion, medication can be very helpful. Long-term? Check with your doctor.
Seriously. Check with your doctor.
DO I NEED SURGERY FOR TRIGGER FINGER?
On occasion, trigger finger is persistent enough and painful enough that over-the-counter measures are no longer effective. In this case, it may be time to start exploring other options with your healthcare provider. The exciting news (unless surgery is exciting for you, in which case, hey, no judgment) is that there’s a good chance you won’t have to jump right to surgery. There are still a few options you can explore with your doctor first.
Before surgery may become necessary, you may want to consider steroid injections. This is a relatively low-risk, non-invasive-except-for-the-injection-part option that can be done in your doctor’s office.
Your doctor will numb the affected finger, and then administer a corticosteroid injection that will help reduce the swelling and inflammation that’s causing the trigger finger.
If you explore this option, it’s worth noting that the pain may not resolve instantly. The steroid will get to work reducing the swelling, but that can take a few weeks to provide full relief. And, of course, depending on WHY you have trigger finger, the shot may be less effective. In pregnancy, for example, steroids are less helpful because the swelling is only really going to abate once the baby is out. Your doctor will know if you are a candidate for injections or not!
Steroid injections are a popular form of treatment, because they provide longer term relief - with some places reporting permanent relief for up to 70% of trigger finger pain sufferers. Often, one injection is enough to help solve the problem for good, but occasionally a second injection is needed. If the pain continues to return, other options may need to be explored.
Trigger Finger Surgery
If all other options have been explored, and trigger finger persists,
it might be time to consider trigger finger surgery. Unlike steroid injections, surgery is more intensive. A surgeon will have to cut the inflamed tendon (or sheath), to allow your finger to resume its former mobility.
Not everyone with trigger finger is a candidate for surgery - it will depend on how bad the pain is, and what caused the trigger finger in the first place. (See our previous note about pregnancy!). If you ARE a candidate, however, expect a fairly minimally invasive procedure, usually done under a local anesthesia (aka you’ll be awake, but your hand will be numbed.)
Trigger finger surgery is one of the best ways to ensure the pain no longer returns - and it cures trigger finger immediately. You’ll need to take some time off to ensure it heals, but there’s a good chance you’ll be able to move your finger again instantly.
Instant gratification is a beautiful thing.
Trigger Finger: Talking to Your Doctor
Now you know everything there is to know about trigger finger, and you are appropriately armed (handed?) to take the next steps in your healthcare journey! If you’re anxious about talking to your doctor -- and heck, who isn’t? -- we’ve created this list of 5 likely questions they’ll have so you can practice the answers in your mirror at home!
When did the pain begin? How often do you experience it?
Does your finger (or fingers) lock up? Again, how often does this occur?
Have you tried any over-the-counter or at-home treatments? (If you have, be prepared to tell them which and how successful they were).
Do you have any related conditions, like arthritis or diabetes? (Or pregnancy, but in my experience docs are ALWAYS going to ask female-presenting patients if they’re pregnant, it’s our curse).
Do you have a job or hobby that involves repetitive use of your hands?
Remember - YOU are allowed to ask questions too! You can ask what the doctor recommends, in terms of treatment, surgery or pain medication. It’s your body, and unless you’re able to possess someone else, it’ll likely be your only body. Take care of yourself.
And drink a lot of water. Seriously.
By: Jess Krzyczkowski
Medically Reviewed by: Dr. Ben Frederick
For more information on trigger finger, check out the rest of our series here.