A recent study confirmed what many student athletes and their parents have learned the hard way: hand injuries and playing sports, especially field sports, can go hand-in-hand. Although some of the most common hand and wrist injuries heal quickly with rest and at-home treatment, other injuries are more serious and can take weeks to heal.
Jonathan Cheng, M.D., and Jennifer Kargel, M.D., hand surgeons at Children’s Health℠, share tips for how to prevent hand and wrist injuries, and how to get your child back in the game as quickly as possible if an injury happens.
Common hand injuries
Fractures, dislocations, ligament and tendon injuries are the most common sports-related hand injuries.
"Field sports, like football, lacrosse and field hockey, that require open field running and where athletes have the chance of being tackled, lead to the most hand and wrist injuries," says Dr. Cheng. "Falling on an outstretched hand can cause wrist injuries."
He says strains and sprains are common with load-bearing activities like gymnastics, cheerleading and weight lifting. They can also cause tendinitis, an inflammation or irritation of a tendon, which can occur with repeated motion.
When to see a doctor for a hand injury
Open wounds, visible bones or bones that should be lined up but aren't, are obvious signs your child needs immediate medical attention. Other serious hand and wrist injuries aren't always as obvious, however.
Dr. Kargel says swelling that doesn't improve within one to two days, pain that gets worse with movement, or a finger that hangs down or can't be moved are signs that it's time to see a hand specialist.
"We want to prevent a potential worsening of a condition," she says. "That's why we recommend an evaluation sooner rather than later. Even if you think something isn't a big deal, a hand specialist can evaluate it to make sure. You can know moving forward that you haven't put your child's hand at risk."
Hand injury treatments
Thankfully, most hand injuries children and adolescents have don't require surgery and can be treated with rest, ice and immobilizing the injury with a splint or cast. Dr. Kargel says every injury may be different, but the average healing times for common hand injuries are:
- Fractures: Fingers need about 6 weeks to heal, a wrist up to 8 weeks. If surgery is needed, recovery takes longer.
- Dislocations: Depending on the severity, a finger may be buddy taped (taping the injured finger to a healthy one) for 2-3 weeks, or splinted for 2-3 weeks, followed by buddy taping for 2-3 weeks.
- Tendon ruptures: These take the longest to heal, requiring 3-4 weeks in a cast, followed by 6-8 weeks of rehabilitation.
- Tendinitis: The area should improve within a couple of weeks with rest and ice. Steroid injections may be an option for chronic cases.
Dr. Cheng says it's better to err on the side of protecting an injury more rather than less – a cast versus a splint or sitting out versus continuing to play – if there's a risk the injury may worsen or not heal properly.
"The best chance of recovery and regaining normal use is if an injury heals properly the first time," he says. "It gets much more complicated if it doesn't."
How to prevent hand injuries
Playing and training smart are the best ways to avoid being sidelined with a hand injury.
"Make the most of protective gear," says Dr. Kargel. "Use those shoulder pads to break a fall rather than an outstretched arm. Wear gloves to protect the hands against lacerations and hits from lacrosse sticks," she says.
Dr. Cheng says using the proper technique during training is important, too.
"Wrists bent all the way back, bearing too much weight in weight training, for instance, can cause sprains and strains," he says. "Make sure your child gets guidance in the right mechanics of his or her sport."