Skier’s thumb, also known as gamekeeper’s thumb or, officially, a UCL tear, is one of the most common skiing injuries. It is estimated this complaint accounts for around eight to ten percent of all injuries on the slopes. While not often serious, skier’s thumb can be quite painful. Fortunately, there are a number of home and medical remedies and treatments available that will alleviate the pain and help the injury heal quickly.
What Is Skier’s Thumb?
Skier’s thumb is a common name for an injury to the soft tissue (ligaments) that connects the bones in the thumb. Injury to this area makes grasping items with the thumb very painful and sometimes impossible. A fall on the slopes with a ski pole in hand is the most common cause of this injury, hence the name.
Symptoms of skier’s thumb include pain in the webbed area between the thumb and the index finger, swelling of the thumb, difficulty grasping things between the thumb and index finger, bruising over the thumb, thumb pain that worsens with movement in any direction, and pain in the wrist that radiates from the thumb.
Testing for Skier’s Thumb
To determine whether your pain is from skier’s thumb or another injury to the hand, the doctor will ask you a serious of questions about how the injury happened and whether you have a history of similar injuries. X-rays can also determine the extent of the tear.
For minor skier’s thumb injuries, home treatment is often sufficient. You can promote healing by limiting movement of the thumb and surrounding area, applying cold packs to the hand, and taking over-the-counter pain medications if other methods don’t relieve the discomfort.
A moderate to severe case of skier’s thumb could require medical attention. When this is the case, your general practitioner will refer you to an orthopedic surgeon who will discuss surgical versus non-surgical options. Non-surgical treatment options include immobilizing the thumb area with a brace or cast or putting the digit in a thumb splint.
More severe cases of skier’s thumb require surgery to reconnect the ligaments to the bones in the thumb. After surgery, the thumb is placed in a cast for several weeks to immobilize the area and allow it to heal completely. Sometimes, a fragment of bone will break off in the fall. In this case, the surgeon may surgically stabilize the hand.
Facts about Skier’s Thumb
- The injury now called skier’s thumb was first written about by English physician CS Campbell in 1955, though he referred to it as gamekeeper’s thumb.
- Despite this alternate name, virtually all injuries today are the result of sports accidents.
- Nearly half of all skiers thumb injuries are caused by falling on an outstretched hand.
The prognosis for someone diagnosed with skier’s thumb is excellent, with the vast majority of patients regaining full mobility within a few weeks. For serious cases, healing from surgical procedures takes about three to four months. Rarely do patients suffer lingering pain or permanent limited movement.
Follow Up Treatment
Skier’s thumb doesn’t require much follow-up after the initial healing period. Surgical patients will need to have the doctor evaluate the incision and eventually remove the cast. As long as it heals completely, the injury is unlikely to recur unless the patient has another accident. In some cases, physical therapy can help the patient regain full use of the thumb.
While completely preventing skier’s thumb is impossible if you participate in winter sports, skiers should be taught to consciously discard their ski poles should they fall. Poles with finger-groove grips (as opposed to poles with wrist straps or closed grips) are easier to discard quickly during a fall.