Take a moment and imagine a day without your thumb. You’ll quickly realize that without your thumb, doing everyday tasks like holding a spoon, texting messages and grasping objects are not that easy.
So, if you sprain your thumb, you’ll want to do whatever you can to help it heal as quickly as possible. Apart from the loss of functionality, the pain and stiffness due to a sprained thumb can make your daily activities a nightmare.
When you sprain your thumb, the tissues that connect the bones in the joint are injured. These tissues, known as ligaments, keep your bones in place when the joint moves.
It can happen due to any activity that requires strenuous or repetitive use of your thumb.
Also, a fall can lead to a sprained thumb. People who have arthritis are more susceptible to such injuries. It is also common among people who play sports like volleyball and football.
Common symptoms of a sprained thumb are mild to severe pain, bruising, stiffness, swelling and difficulty grasping items between the thumb and index finger. Symptoms can last for days or weeks, depending on the severity of the sprain.
A thumb sprain is much less serious than a broken thumb because the ligament or bone isn’t broken or torn, but the pain and discomfort can cause a lot of problems.
The good news is that there are many effective at-home treatments for minor sprains. The recovery time for a sprained thumb is typically four to six weeks, unless the ligament is torn.
Caution: No matter what, any kind of thumb injury should be checked by your doctor. Leaving a sprain or minor fractures untreated can cause serious issues.
Here are the top 10 ways to treat a sprained thumb at home.
Rest is one of the elements of ‘RICE’, a mnemonic for four elements used to treat soft tissue injuries. RICE stands for Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation.
To ensure quick healing of your sprained thumb, you need to allow it to rest. Proper rest is a key component for repairing soft tissue damage.
On the other hand, continual strain will cause more inflammation, pain and possible further injury. Plus, without rest, it will take longer to heal.
So, avoid any jerky, painful movements. Avoid playing sports or grasping things too hard with your thumb. Any kind of strenuous activity will only aggravate the injury.
By keeping it immobile for some time, you prevent triggering the injured muscles. It is advised to rest your injured thumb for 1 to 2 days.
The I in RICE stands for ice. Applying ice on a sprained thumb can help reduce swelling, inflammation and pain. Ice keeps the ligaments from becoming inflamed by reducing the body’s inflammatory response.
Ice therapy also stops any bleeding from a torn ligament.
Ice should be applied on the affected area for the first 48 to 72 hours after the injury occurs.
- Wrap several ice cubes in a towel.
- Apply the compress to the injured thumb for 15 to 20 minutes.
- Repeat every 2 to 3 hours.
If ice is not readily available, you can use a frozen package of vegetables or submerge your thumb in cool water.
Caution: Never put ice directly against the skin, as it may damage the skin tissues.
The C in RICE stands for compression. To reduce pain and stop the swelling due to your sprained thumb, compress the thumb as soon as possible.
Compressing the thumb prevents fluid from accumulating in the area, which will help reduce swelling as well as pain. It will also prevent further injury.
For compression, you can use an ACE wrap or elastic bandage, which are readily available in the market.
- Wrap the bandage using even pressure around your thumb. Do not wrap it too tightly or it can cut off the circulation and cause more pain.
- Keep the bandage on during the day until the swelling reduces.
- Remove the bandage before you go to sleep.
Caution: Remove the bandage immediately if your thumb turns blue or begins to feel numb.
4. Elevate the Thumb
The E in RICE stands for elevation. Sprains can cause poor circulation, which in turn can cause more swelling and pain. To improve circulation, keeping your thumb elevated above your chest level is a must.
Elevation provides relief from discomforts like swelling, inflammation and pain. It also facilitates elimination of waste products and speeds up the healing process.
- To keep the sprained thumb elevated above your chest level while sitting, put a few pillows on the arm rest of your chair or sofa and rest your hand on it.
- To keep the thumb elevated while sleeping, put a few pillows under your hand.
5. Moist Heat
Just like ice therapy, moist heat is also beneficial. But it should be used only after the first 72 hours following the injury.
Heat increases blood circulation to the area and warms the muscles, which in turn reduces the pain and inflammation.
- Soak a towel in warm water and squeeze out the excess. Put the warm, moist towel over your thumb area for 10 minutes at a time. Repeat several times a day for 2 to 3 days.
- Alternatively, mix 1 tablespoon of Epsom salt into a bowl of warm water. Soak the sprained thumb in this water for at least 20 minutes. Do this twice daily for 3 to 4 days.
Caution: With heat, avoid overdoing it, as it can increase swelling.
6. Soft Tissue Massage
Once the pain and swelling are gone, you can try soft tissue massage. It will promote healing of the injured ligament.
Moreover, massage helps improve blood flow to the area.
- Apply some lukewarm olive or coconut oil on the affected area.
- Massage the area with long, gentle strokes for 5 to 10 minutes.
- After the massage, wrap the area with a warm towel.
- Do it several times a day.
Caution: If massage brings on more pain, stop doing it.
Turmeric is an excellent pain reliever due to its anti-inflammatory properties. Hence, you can use this common kitchen spice to treat a sprained thumb.
Being antispasmodic, turmeric also relaxes the muscles and tissues and helps reduce swelling and pain.
A study published in the Journal of Traditional and Complementary Medicine in 2017 found that curcumin is a natural anti-inflammatory agent that has been used for treating medical conditions like sprains (1).
- Mix 1 tablespoon of turmeric powder and a little bit of warm water or olive oil to make a thick paste. Apply the paste on the sprained area, then wrap it with a bandage. Leave it on for 10 hours. Repeat every 10 hours and continue this treatment for 1 week.
- In case of immense pain, add 1 teaspoon of turmeric powder to a glass of warm milk. Drink this twice daily.
8. Cayenne Pepper
Cayenne pepper contains capsaicin, which has analgesic and anti-inflammatory properties that can help reduce pain due to the sprain on your thumb.
When applied topically, capsaicin produces a warming sensation that helps treat soft tissue injuries.
- Mix together ½ teaspoon of cayenne pepper powder and 1 tablespoon of lukewarm olive oil.
- Apply it on the affected area and massage gently for 1 minute.
- Rinse it off after 20 to 30 minutes.
- Do it twice daily for a few days for complete recovery.
You can also use over-the-counter creams containing capsaicin to massage the affected area.
Caution: Do not apply cayenne pepper on broken or irritated skin.
Arnica can also be used for healing a sprained thumb. This anti-inflammatory herb helps reduce pain, swelling and inflammation (2).
As an added benefit, arnica increases circulation and accelerates the healing process.
- Mix a few drops of arnica essential oil in 1 tablespoon of carrier oil like coconut oil. Massage the affected thumb with it for a few minutes. Wrap a bandage over the area and leave it on for a couple of hours. Remove the bandage and repeat the process after a few hours. Do this for a few days.
- Alternatively, apply arnica balm or ointment 2 or 3 times a day.
Caution: Do a patch test before using arnica. Also, do not apply arnica if the skin has open cuts.
Your thumb will be stiff after not using it for weeks, so you need to do some exercise to get back full use of your thumb.
- Place your hand palm-side down on a flat surface. Slowly attempt to move your thumb away from your palm, hold this position for 5 seconds and then bring it back. Do it 10 to 15 times.
- Rest your hand on its side, with your thumb on your index finger. Move your thumb sideways, hold the position for 5 seconds and then return to the starting position.
- Squeeze a small, soft rubber ball with your fingers and thumb for 5 seconds before releasing your grip. Do this a few times each day.
- Press down on the area of the sprain to keep swelling down.
- Avoid activities that could put stress on your thumb.
- While your thumb is healing, don’t play any sports that involve your hands.
- Wear all recommended safety equipment when you play sports.
- Stretch the muscles of your hands for a few minutes before you do any kind of exercise.
- Chiropractic care is another popular natural treatment for a sprained thumb.
- Like chiropractic care, acupuncture is another effective option that you can try.
- Curcumin: An age-old anti-inflammatory and anti-neoplastic agent. Egyptian Journal of Medical Human Genetics. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2225411016302528. Published September 09, 2016.
- Homeopathic arnica for prevention of pain and bruising: randomized placebo-controlled trial in hand surgery. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC539394/.