A Real Pain in the Thumb: Your Guide to Gamekeeper’s Thumb

When your favorite activities are compromised because of pain, it can be incredibly upsetting. Also known as the ulnar collateral ligament, this area of the body can have some serious pain. Read on for more information on what gamekeeper’s thumb is, activities that can not only lead to it but also can interfere with it, and ways to treat this frustrating condition.

What is Gamekeeper’s Thumb?

What might seem like an odd name makes more sense when you think about the location of the pain and why it is caused. Featuring pain located in the ulnar collateral ligament—which is right at the thumb—this condition can be caused by repetitive motion of this ligament. The term originates from Scottish gamekeepers in 1955, who often sacrificed game by breaking their necks between their thumbs and forefingers. Over time, this repetitive action led to an overuse injury that caused mild to severe pain right in the thumb. Specifically, when a valgus force is placed onto the abducted metacarpophalangeal (MCP) joint, this leads to a ruptured ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) injury. The result: instability of the joint and ligament, which causes a weakened pinch grasp, and pain.

Causes of Gamekeeper’s Thumb

You’re probably not out killing rabbits and other small game, so how could you have gamekeeper’s thumb? There are actually a number of other actions that can cause this type of injury. One big one is skiing—which is why gamekeeper’s thumb is often referred to as skier’s thumb. Holding the ski poles can cause strain on the MCP joint that leads to a UCL injury during skiing. Forcefully twisting a tool or trying to catch yourself with your hand when you fall can also lead to gamekeeper’s thumb.

How can you tell if you have this condition? If you have had some sort of trauma to the area, and now you are having trouble with your pincher grasp or with twisting motions, you might have gamekeeper’s thumb. You might find it challenging to do things you once did, like skiing of course, or opening jars. Here are some of the most common symptoms of this condition:

  • A dull ache or pain that originates in the middle joint of your thumb where it attaches to the hand
  • Pinching things can be very difficult to do, or is painful
  • Problems with holding objects or grasping
  • The thumb might even appear crooked and possibly look as if it is leaning at an odd angle, away from the hand

How Bad Is It?

This injury can start off as being just a nuisance, but can turn into something more serious. Ligament injuries should really be treated as soon as possible. So, the injury could be not all that bad, but letting it go and continuing to use it when it is injured can lead to it becoming much more serious.

So, how can you treat gamekeeper’s thumb? There are a multitude of ways to help to treat this type of injury. Some of the most popular and effective ones include:

  • Ice and anti-inflammatory medications – These two methods serve to help reduce swelling and pain within the area. Icing can help to calm things down, while anti-inflammatory medication is a great option, when taken in the correct dosage, for help to ease blood flow to the area and reduce swelling.
  • Splints – In order to give the ligament time to heal, a splint can be worn. Splints serve as a way to stabilize and protect the thumb. In some cases, like when a tear or fracture is suspected, your doctor may decide to use a cast or splint to aid in healing. In more severe cases where the ligament has torn away from the bone, a splint can be worn to protect the thumb from further injury prior to surgery being done.
    • Types of splints:
      • Light and Moderate Control Splints – When the gamekeeper’s thumb injury is milder and is simply inflamed or irritated and the ligament remains attached to the bone, a light control splint or one that offers more moderate control might be the best option. These allow the injured ligament to heal itself. It is highly recommended that you wear one of these to aid in the healing process in order to avoid surgery.
      • Firm Control Splint – A firmer splint can also be used, which can help by limiting wrist motion or function in order to protect the thumb from further injury.
  • Rest – Another important aspect of healing for this type of injury is REST! In our go, go, go world it can be hard to just sit back and relax, but if you’re dealing with this type of injury it might be best to sit out of some of your favorite activities for a season. This can aid in healing so that you’ll only be out for a few months and can come back stronger later. You might have to hang up your skis or put the baseball down, but in the long run this can ensure you’ll be doing these activities for years to come.

As with any type of injury, it’s best to see a doctor before you start self-diagnosing and self-treating. You can never be too sure as to how serious your injury is and whether or not you have the injury that you think. Make sure to see a doctor as soon as you can in order to determine the severity of your gamekeeper’s thumb. Don’t just sit back and ignore it, as this can lead to a worsening of the condition and possible irreversible damage. See a doctor, get it checked out, and work with your medical professional to devise a plan for treating and beating gamekeeper’s thumb. In no time, you’ll be back to doing your favorite activities and continuing to live your life just as you did before.

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