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Swollen Fingers

What Are They, Causes, Treatment, and More

Author: Lily Guo

Editors: Alyssa Haag, Józia McGowan, DO

Illustrator: Jillian Dunbar

Copyeditor: Joy Mapes


What are swollen fingers?

Swollen fingers, or the enlargement of the fingers of the hand, can be a sign of fluid retention or inflammation of the fingers. In some cases, swollen fingers can improve without medical intervention; in other cases, treatment of the underlying cause may be necessary. 

What causes swollen fingers?

Swollen fingers may result from a variety of causes, including underlying medical conditions, lifestyle factors, and medication side effects. 

Arthritis

Arthritis, or inflammation of the joints, is the most common cause of swollen fingers and is especially prevalent in adults who are 65 years old and older. Several types of arthritis can cause swollen fingers. Osteoarthritis is a form of arthritis that refers to the breakdown of bone cartilage due to normal ‘wear and tear,’ or everyday use of the hand joints. As cartilage wears down, bony growths can form around the joints in an effort to compensate for the deterioration. This leads to swelling around the affected finger joints. Other types of arthritis, such as rheumatoid arthritis and psoriatic arthritis, can also cause swollen fingers. Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune condition that generally causes swelling of the joints in both hands. In contrast, psoriatic arthritis is a chronic inflammatory skin condition that can cause dactylitis, a sausage-like swelling of one or more fingers. 

Allergies

Swollen fingers can also result from contact dermatitis, an allergic reaction caused by direct skin contact with a household item (e.g., soaps, fragrances, cosmetics, detergents) containing an allergen or with an environmental irritant (e.g., poison ivy). If the swelling of one's fingers coincides with exposure to a potential irritant, an allergic reaction may be the underlying cause. Identifying the irritant is necessary to avoid future reactions. The affected individual may try reducing the irritation by washing their hands with cool water and a gentle, fragrance-free soap. Swelling caused by contact dermatitis typically clears up within two to three weeks. 

Injury

Sudden impact on one or more of the fingers, such as when fingers get caught in a closing door, can trigger inflammation, or the body’s natural response to injury. The goal of inflammation is to remove the damaged tissue and allow the body to heal. If the injury is severe and presents with increased pain and limited range of motion of the fingers, a break or fracture may have occurred, and a clinician should be consulted. 

Infection

If there is any break in the skin (i.e., cuts, cracks, or wounds), there is potential for bacteria to invade and cause infection. In response to an infection, white blood cells rush to the site to clear away the foreign bacteria. This may lead to swelling. Swollen fingers caused by infection are typically accompanied by redness, heat, pain, fever, or chills. If the entire hand is affected, cellulitis, which is a common bacterial skin infection that can be life-threatening if not treated, may be the underlying cause. 

Compromised circulation

Compromised circulation to the fingers can occur from wearing too-tight jewelry or as a result of a medical condition known as lymphedema. Lymphadema is characterized by damage to lymph nodes or lymph vessels, preventing the drainage of lymphatic fluid from the arms and hands. Dysfunctional lymph nodes or lymph vessels can lead to tissue swelling in the fingers, and more commonly, in the entire arm and hands. This most commonly occurs when the lymph nodes are surgically removed to treat breast cancer

Autoimmune Disease

Autoimmune diseases (e.g., systemic lupus erythematosus, rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, scleroderma) occur when the immune system mistakenly attacks the body’s healthy cells, triggering inflammation of the entire body, including the fingers. When an individual develops swollen fingers as a result of lupus, they will often also experience joint pain, fatigue, unintentional weight loss, and a malar rash, which appears across the cheeks and bridge of the nose and is butterfly-shaped. 

Tumor

Both malignant (i.e., cancerous), and benign (i.e., non-cancerous) tumors of the skin, soft tissue, or bone can cause a swollen appearance of the finger. Tumors that may result in swollen fingers include fibromas (i.e., a benign tumor composed of fibrous or connective tissue), lipomas (i.e., benign fatty growths), and melanomas (i.e., a cancer originating from melanocytes, the cells that produce pigment in our skin). If a tumor is a suspected cause of finger swelling, the individual should be promptly evaluated to determine whether the tumor is malignant, so steps can be taken to stop the tumor from spreading to other parts of the body. Early treatment may also prevent nerve compression and joint deformity and destruction. 

Exercise

Exercise can also lead to swollen fingers. When an individual exercises, increased energy demands from the vital organs diverts blood flow from the extremities (hands and feet) to the heart, lungs, and muscles.  As a result, the hands receive less blood. The hands’ blood vessels widen in an effort to increase blood flow, which can make the hands swell. With prolonged exercise, blood flow increases towards the surface of the body in order to dissipate heat and cool down the body, and this greater blood flow incidentally contributes to finger swelling as well. 

High-Salt Diet

Consuming a diet high in salt may cause the body to retain more water in order to dilute the body’s increased salt concentration. Water retention can then induce swelling in the hands and fingers. The swelling caused by eating a salty meal is often mild and usually resolves within a day or two. 

Medications

Certain medications can cause swelling throughout the body, including the fingers. These medications include those used to treat diabetes (e.g., pioglitazone, rosiglitazone), hormone treatments (e.g., tamoxifen), blood pressure medications (e.g., amlodipine), and oral steroids (e.g., prednisolone). However, swollen fingers are not a common side effect of these medications.

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Can dehydration cause swollen fingers?

Dehydration does not typically make fingers swell. In fact, drinking excessive amounts of water, perhaps during a marathon or other strenuous exercise, can lead to hyponatremia, the retention of too much water causing unusually low sodium levels. Hyponatremia can result in swollen fingers. Swelling in the fingers and hands due to hyponatremia is usually accompanied by vomiting and behavioral signs that the individual is confused. Hyponatremia requires immediate medical attention. 

How do you treat swollen fingers?

Treatment of swollen fingers generally involves resting the affected area, applying ice, compressing the area with bandages, and elevating the affected limb. Icing can help reduce swelling after an injury, compression can also reduce swelling and remove the fluid collecting in the area, and elevation helps the blood vessels carry fluid away from the affected area. If the joint is affected, using a splint to immobilize the area can limit further irritation from movement and excessive use. 

In addition, comprehensive treatment includes addressing the cause of the swelling. If the swelling is due to an underlying medical condition, treating the condition is typically necessary to manage current and future swelling. A clinician can also prescribe a diuretic medication (e.g., furosemide, hydrochlorothiazide), which will flush excess fluid from the body. If the swelling is due to a lump or mass, such as a tumor, the physician may offer surgical removal. If the individual’s diet is a factor, clinicians may recommend reducing their dietary salt intake. 

How do you prevent swollen fingers?

To prevent swollen fingers, individuals should increase blood flow by performing forward and backward arm circles. Stretching the fingers wide and making fists several times during exercise is another way to increase circulation and prevent fluid buildup. Rings, watch bands, and anything else that may limit blood flow to the fingers should be loosened before exercising. Compression gloves may be worn during the day to restrict the amount of blood diverted to the fingers, thereby reducing swelling.

What are the most important facts to know about swollen fingers?

Swollen fingers refers to the enlargement of an individual’s fingers as a result of an underlying physical cause. Potential causes include arthritis, exercise, high salt levels, allergic reactions, medication side effects, and injury. Dehydration is not typically a cause of swollen fingers; rather, excess fluid intake can potentially lead to swelling. Treatment of swollen fingers includes resting the joints, icing the affected area, compressing the area with bandages, and elevating the limb. Identifying the cause is also important in order to treat the swelling effectively. Swollen fingers may be prevented by stretching the arms and hands before exercise, as well as loosening any tight and restrictive jewelry or watches. Swelling of the fingers can be completely harmless and resolve on its own, or it can be a sign of a more serious medical condition, so medical consultation may be needed. 

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Related links

Blood vessels and nerves of the hand
Hyponatremia
Fascia, vessels and nerves of the upper limb
Osmotic diuretics
Rheumatoid arthritis

Resources for research and reference

Buoy. (n.d.). Top 11 causes of hand swelling. Retrieved March 31, 2021, from https://www.buoyhealth.com/learn/hand-swelling 

Covert, J. (2021, February 28). 11 reasons you have swollen fingers. In SilverSneakers. Retrieved March 31, 2021, from https://www.silversneakers.com/blog/swollen-fingers-causes-when-call-doctor/

Laskowski, E. (2021, March 25). Hand swelling during exercise: A concern? In Mayo Clinic. Retrieved March 31, 2021, from https://www.mayoclinic.org/hand-swelling/expert-answers/faq-20058255