Swollen fingers and general swelling in the hands and arms is common with many injuries and medical conditions. It is important to identify the cause so that appropriate treatment can be started, and complications can be avoided.
Swelling can occur because of an injury to the hand or arm or a medical condition. Traumatic injuries, such as a crushing injury or broken bones, result in a lot of fluid rushing to the injured area. This is part of the body’s natural healing response. The body creates inflammation and delivers extra blood and fluid to the injury so that there are more cells and healing factors available for repair. Too much inflammation, however, can be painful and harmful.
Medical conditions can cause swollen fingers and general swelling as well. Arthritis commonly results in swelling of the hands, often in the morning upon waking up. Infections can also result in swelling, and these should be treated right away. More localized swelling from ganglion cysts or tumors should be looked at in your hand surgeon’s office.
Because of the pressure build-up, swelling can cause pain and discomfort. With swollen fingers, it can also temporarily reduce your flexibility and mobility which, if left for a long period of time, can result in significant stiffness. In certain cases, swelling can become so severe that it can reduce blood flow or injure nerves and muscles in the forearm and hand. This is especially true with very bad fractures and infections.
Swollen fingers and general swelling occurs mostly because of the buildup of fluid in spaces within the hand and wrist. This fluid typically collects in areas that cannot be “pumped” out by the blood vessels. Because of this, keeping the hand and arm down results in gravity keeping the fluid in its place and even allowing for more fluid to enter into the hand. Therefore, keeping the hand and arm elevated, ideally above the level of your heart, will help gravity take the fluid out of the hand and arm. Think of it like water flowing downhill; keeping the hand down makes the water go into the hand and keeping the hand up makes the water go back into the body. Keeping the hand elevated, potentially for extended periods of time, is critical. This is especially true after an injury or surgery, as it takes much longer for the swelling to come out of the hand than it does to get into it.
Other things you can do to help swelling include:
If you’re experience swelling that was caused by an infection, address it immediately by calling your hand surgeon or going to the emergency room for an evaluation. You may need antibiotics or even surgery to remove the infection. If you develop numbness or tingling with any kind of swelling, especially after a traumatic injury, please go to an emergency room immediately.
© 2019American Society for Surgery of the Hand
This content is written, edited and updated by hand surgeon members of the American Society for Surgery of the Hand.Find a hand surgeon near you.