Hitting the Slopes this Holiday Season? Don’t Get Caught with Skier’s Thumb

An age-old hand injury now associated with modern day sports

This time of year the adventures that beckon include snow packed peaks and winter white trails. To ensure success on the slopes, learn how to avoid a common hand injury that could end your run and holiday fun early; “Skier’s thumb.” Skier’s thumb is among one of the more common hand injuries associated with these winter sports.  If not properly treated it can affect “pinch and grip” strength, hindering overall hand function and predisposing the joint to chronic instability and osteoarthritis.

What is Skier’s Thumb

Skier’s Thumb, UCL Damage of the Thumb’s MCP Joint

Skier’s thumb, which is also referred to as a thumb sprain or “Gamekeeper’s thumb,” is an injury to the ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) of the thumb’s metacarpal phalangeal (MCP) joint.  It is the result of forced abduction or hyperextension of the proximal phalanx of the thumb, caused by abnormal pulling of the thumb, such as in a fall, while affixed to the ski pole/hoop.  While this type of injury is often seen among skiers, it is also frequently seen in athletes or those sustaining a fall on an outstretched hand.

The term “Gamekeeper’s thumb” was first coined in 1955 by CS Campbell, who identified UCL injuries as an occupational disease in Scottish gamekeepers. The gamekeepers strangled rabbits using their thumb and index finger, and the repeated valgus stresses resulted in UCL injury and chronic instability of the MCP joint [1]. In the present day, this lesion occurs more frequently in acute sports-related injuries like skiing.

Signs of Injury to the Ulnar Collateral Ligament Include:

  • Pain at the base of the thumb between the thumb and index finger
  • Swelling of the thumb
  • Weakness pinching or grasping
  • Tenderness along the index finger side of the thumb
  • Blue or black discoloration of the skin over the thumb
  • Thumb pain that worsens with movement in any or all directions

Diagnosing Skier’s Thumb

A physical examination and patient history are used in diagnosing this condition. To determine the extent of damage to the UCL, the thumb is moved in various positions to assess stability of the thumb joint.  A stress x-ray may be recommended to confirm that there are no broken bones.

Treatment and Rehabilitation for Skiers Thumb

Treatment for Skier’s Thumb depends on the extent of the damage.  Most cases respond well to conservative, nonsurgical treatment, which may entail immobilization in a cast initially – followed by a splint for a total of six weeks.

If the UCL is completely torn, surgery may be indicated to reconnect the ligament to the bone and restore range of motion and full thumb function.  Any bone damage that occurred during the tear is also repaired during this time.  Following surgery, patients are put in a splint and undergo range of motion exercises with protected activities for four to six weeks. This is then followed by conditioning and strengthening of the thumb.

References

  1. Hung CY, Varacallo M, Chang KV. Gamekeepers Thumb. StatPearls. (Last updated Aug 11, 2021) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK499971/ .

 Dr. Korsh Jafarnia is a Houston board-certified, fellowship trained orthopedic surgeon specializing in the hand, wrist and elbow. He is a published author and recognized locally and nationally as a “top doctor” in his field, who is highly sought for his level of expertise in hand and upper extremity orthopedic care.

 

 

Ring Avulsion, a Traumatic Finger Injury

Recently talk show host Jimmy Fallon explained to his audience how a seemingly minor fall nearly cost him a finger – shedding light on a rare yet serious finger trauma known as a Ring Avulsion injury.

Ring avulsion results from the mechanism of crushing, shearing and avulsion, inducing severe macroscopic and microscopic damage. This type of injury often occurs when a ring that an individual is wearing is caught on an object, usually during a fall or jump.  It can also occur when caught on fast moving equipment or just simply in a “freak” accident.

Damage from the abrupt and often harsh tug of the caught ring can range from a simple contusion to “degloving” of soft tissue – pulling the skin off circumferentially and stripping away the nerves, tendons and bone. Severe accidents may result in traumatic amputation of the finger.

Ring avulsion can be among one of the most devastating traumatic finger injuries, as often replantation following severe soft tissue damage is not possible – requiring revision amputation.

Fortunately, advances in microsurgery and interposition graft techniques have improved results with ring avulsion replantation.  Patients should see a hand specialist immediately after the injury is identified.

Symptoms of Ring Avulsion

While Fallon knew he had severely injured his finger in his fall, the extent of the damage and seriousness of the injury was not completely revealed until his examination and x-ray.  Prompt attention and surgical care from a specialized hand team fortunately saved his finger.

The severe damage that can occur in a ring avulsion case is not always evident to a patient. Immediate examination and x-ray assessment are necessary.

Symptoms may include:

  • Pain
  • Bleeding
  • Lack of sensation at the tip
  • Disfigurement
  • Finger discoloration or whitening

In severe cases, part of the finger is removed from the bone or completely severed (traumatic amputation).

Diagnosing and Treating Ring Avulsion

When a patient presents with this type of finger trauma, the wound is cleaned and inspected for visible avulsed vessel, nerve, and tendon.  Damaged skin edges are also assessed.  An x-ray may also be indicated before determining the type of avulsion a patient has incurred.  If a portion of the finger is separated, an x-ray is performed on both the amputated part and the remaining digit to fully asses damage and likelihood of replantation.

If there is a separated part, it is wrapped in a saline gauze and placed in a bag with ice water.  The patient is given antibiotics and tetanus prophylaxis.

The injury is then classified using one of several ring avulsion classification systems that exist.  Most commonly used is the Urbaniak Classification system.  The class of ring avulsion (Class 1, 2, or 3) will help determine treatment.

The goal of the hand surgeon is to salvage, maintain function and, if possible, provide an esthetic appearance.

Commonly used classification chart for Ring Avulsion injuries.

Commonly used classification charts for Ring Avulsion injuries.

Avoiding Risk of Ring Avulsion

It is difficult for patients to understand how otherwise inconsequential stumbles or movements can result in the damage or loss of a digit when a ring is involved.  We often forget that the bones and joints of the hand and wrist are small and capable of sustaining just so much force. Skin is the finger’s strongest part.  Once the skin tears, the remaining tissue quickly degloves. Though rare, the potential harm that a ring can pose should be considered – particularly when performing certain extracurricular or sports activities, or when working with machinery. Unfortunately many accidents resulting in a ring avulsion are not anticipated nor could be imagined.  Prompt attention is key to a successful outcome.

References

Flagg SV, Finseth FJ, Krizek TJ. Ring avulsion injury. Plast Reconstr Surg. 1977;59:241–8.

Brooks D, et al. Ring avulsion: injury pattern, treatment, and outcome. Clinics in Plastic Surgery April 2007 ;34(2):187-95, viii.

Fejjal N, Belmir R, Mazouz S El, Gharib NE, et al. Finger avulsion injuries:  A report of four cases.  Indian J Orthop. 2008 Apr-Jun; 42(2): 208–211.

Sears ED, Chung KC.  Replantation of finger avulsion injuries:  A systematic review of survival and functional outcomes.  J Hand Surg Am. 2011;36(4):686-94.