Trigger Finger

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS

What is trigger finger?

Trigger finger is a condition when a finger or thumb briefly locks when you try to extend it. It is a problem with the flexor tendons. Tendons are strong bands of connective tissue that attach muscles to bones. When muscles contract, they pull on tendons, which makes your joints move. Flexor tendons are long tendons that control finger and thumb movements. Flexor tendons run from your forearm muscles, through your wrists, and attach to the bones in your fingers and thumb. When you use your fingers, these tendons slide through a protective sheath surrounding them.

Trigger finger occurs when a flexor tendon becomes irritated and inflamed. Over time, the tendon can thicken and the space within the surrounding sheath can constrict. This causes the tendon to get stuck briefly at the opening of the sheath. As a result, the finger or thumb will catch in the flexed position before popping out straight. Inflammation of the tendon sheath—tenosynovitis—can also cause trigger finger.

Trigger finger is not a medical emergency. However, you should seek prompt medical care if you notice a finger catching with movement. Early treatment may simply involve rest and a special splint for trigger finger. The longer you let it go without treatment, the less likely it is that nonsurgical treatments will work.

What are symptoms of trigger finger?

A brief locking of the finger or thumb when you try to extend it is the main symptom of trigger finger. It usually affects the thumb, middle finger, or ring finger. You may notice trigger finger worsens after a period of inactivity. Trigger finger can also be progressive. It can reach the point that you are not able to straighten your finger, even with assistance from your other hand.

Other common trigger finger symptoms include:

  • Difficulty using the hand effectively leading to disability

  • Pain when using your finger or thumb, which can be severe

  • Swelling

  • Tender lump in the palm of the hand

See your doctor if you have symptoms of trigger finger because early medical care offers the best chance of successfully recovering and avoiding surgery. The more time you let pass without seeing your doctor, the less likely nonsurgical treatments will help in the long term.

What causes trigger finger?

Any activity that stresses or irritates the finger’s flexor tendons can lead to trigger finger. Inflammation of the tendon sheath can also occur. The activity is often a repetitive movement that involves repeatedly flexing (bending) the finger. In some cases, the cause of inflammation is not clear.

Certain factors increase the likelihood of developing trigger finger. However, not all people with risk factors will get it. Risk factors for trigger finger include:

  • Being between the age of 40 and 60 years

  • Being female

  • Having diabetes, gout, and inflammatory forms of arthritis, such as rheumatoid arthritis

  • Injuring the palm of the hand or base of the finger or thumb

  • Performing activities that require excess or repetitive gripping or grasping

Reducing your risk of trigger finger

Reducing your risk of a medical condition primarily involves changing risk factors that you can control. Try limiting repetitive motions that may contribute to developing trigger finger. If the motion is part of your work and cannot be avoided, consider seeing a physical therapist for a custom-fit finger or thumb splint. You also may be able to lower your risk by following your treatment plan for the chronic diseases linked to trigger finger. If you are at risk for trigger finger, a splint may help reduce the chances of irritating the tendons.

How is trigger finger treated?

The trigger finger treatment you need will depend on the severity of the problem. Mild cases of trigger finger may respond to home treatments. This includes:

  • Resting the finger and hand

  • Stretching the hand with trigger finger exercises to maintain mobility

  • Taking over-the-counter NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs), such as ibuprofen (Advil, Ibuprofen) and naproxen (Aleve)

  • Wearing a trigger finger splint at night

For persistent cases, your doctor may recommend a corticosteroid injection. However, these treatments are less likely to work when you have had trigger finger for a long time. Delaying treatment can contribute to this treatment failure. If two injections fail to resolve trigger finger, your doctor may suggest trigger finger surgery or trigger finger release. This is an outpatient surgery to open the tendon sheath and relieve pressure on the tendon. Recovery takes a few weeks.

What are the potential complications of trigger finger?

Without proper treatment, trigger finger can get worse. It can progress to the point that you are unable to use your hand well. Surgery is usually successful at eliminating the problem. Complications from the surgery are not common. However, some stiffness can persist afterwards. Physical therapy or hand therapy can help restore flexibility and function.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Aug 25
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
  1. Trigger Finger. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons.
  2. Trigger Finger. American Society for Surgery of the Hand.
  3.  Trigger Finger. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research.