What to Expect if You Have a Broken Thumb

If someone you know recently broke their thumb while playing a sport, you may have several questions about what to do and what to expect during recovery.

Sports athletes suffering a broken thumb during a game happen a lot. Immediate attention for a broken thumb is crucial. The sooner you treat it, the sooner you can return to the playing field.

"Any thumb fracture is not going to be something that is too out of the ordinary," CHRISTUS Health orthopedic surgeon Stephen Littlejohn said. "It's a little bit more predictable, you know, and they almost always heal."

How Serious are Thumb Fractures and Surgery?

Thumb fractures are a little bit more predictable than other breaks, and almost always heal. Bones act differently with surgery and function. But usually, the thumb is very forgiving.

Sometimes if you break a collarbone, an orthopedic surgeon will use a plate and screws to keep the bone in place. Unfortunately, sometimes, plate screws cause a problem in the future, and somebody breaks the bone on the other side of the plate and screws.

Fortunately, thumb surgery, however, is routine, especially for professional athletes.

What are Broken Thumb Treatments?

There's not a lot of rehabilitation for a broken thumb because the thumb has so much motion it can recover from a fracture and still be functional quickly.

Thumb injuries are not like ACL injuries, where you must go through a lot of rehab, work on your range of motion, and do quad muscle work.

With a thumb injury, there's not a lot of stiffness, and you're not worried about your muscles that much. However, a thumb injury can cause grip strength to weaken just because of the operation. 

Also, thankfully: 

  • Most thumb injuries do not need surgery.
  • Sometimes thumbs need to be in casts to heal.

However, if the operation is needed, screws and pins are used to place the bone back together. If there is a ligament tear, you can open that up and reattach the ligament to the bone with special bone anchors specific to that area.

How to Tell if You Have a Broken or Sprained Thumb?

A broken thumb is usually more painful than a sprain, and a fractured thumb will look out of place or crooked.

A thumb sprain can cause discomfort at the bottom of the thumb due to a ligament being stretched, torn, or completely pulled off the bone. In addition, a sprained thumb can be caused stiffness, swelling, or tenderness. Additionally, sprained thumb will not look out of place.

How Common are Thumb Injuries?

Especially in contact sports like football, thumb injuries are common. Orthopedic surgeons see hand injuries daily.

Injuries can happen when:

  • Axial load or bone is compressed.
  • The thumb can be tucked, twisted or stepped on.

"It's actually quite common, especially in quarterbacks where they're throwing near helmets," said Dr. Ben Feibel, Orthopedic Surgeon for CHRISTUS Health.

How Long Does it Take a Broken Thumb to Heal?

Generally, hands fractures heal in four to six weeks. Thumbs and fingers also can recover in four weeks.

For people playing sports positions like quarterback, it's going to take six weeks to get to the point where someone can hold and throw a football again.

An orthopedic surgeon's job is to ensure the bone lines up appropriately and to give an athlete or the appropriate patient time to heal. This is about six weeks for professional athletes but can be longer for other patients. But, first, the surgeons ensure the bone is lined up appropriately to give it enough time to heal.

It also depends on the position someone plays in a professional sport. For example, quarterbacks need more time to heal, especially if they hurt their throwing hand.

"Offensive linemen can probably go back to play in a couple of weeks with a cast, depending on exactly where the break is on the thumb," Littlejohn said.

What to Do About a Broken Thumb?

If you realize that your thumb is crooked or can't bend or straighten your thumb, then seek medical attention immediately.

If your hand is hurting more than you think it should after a couple of days, go to your primary care physician's  office or visit a local orthopedic surgeon to undergo an X-Ray. You can also visit CHRISTUS Health Hand Clinic which offers specialized treatment for hand and wrist rehab. 

Ben Feibel, an orthopedic surgeon with CHRISTUS Health in Shreveport.