Identifying the Gamekeeper’s Thumb Signs and Symptoms

by | Jun 15, 2024

Campbell first used the term Gamekeeper’s thumb in 1955 because it often affected Scottish gamekeepers. It especially impacted those who took care of rabbits as a work injury. Knowing the gamekeeper’s thumb signs and symptoms is important as it’s a common sports injury.

What Is Gamekeeper’s Thumb?

It is a sports injury, also known as a skier’s thumb or break dancer’s thumb. It happens when the ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) in the thumb is injured. Ligaments are strong, flexible tissues that connect bones.

The UCL, found at the base of the thumb, helps stabilize the main thumb joint. If the UCL is strained or torn, either partially or completely, it can weaken the thumb’s ability to grasp or pinch. Sports medicine can treat it without surgery.

Why Is It Called Gamekeeper’s Thumb?

Gamekeeper’s thumb, got its name from court gamekeepers who repeatedly twisted the necks of birds and other animals they caught. This practice caused damage over time to the ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) in their thumbs.

Gamekeeper’s Thumb Causes

A gamekeeper’s thumb can happen from a sudden injury or from doing something over and over again. It often occurs when you fall, and your hand lands with the thumb away from your fingers, stretching or tearing the UCL.

This can happen in skiing accidents when you fall and don’t let go of the ski pole. The chronic type of injury happens gradually from doing the same movements repeatedly. This term usually refers to that kind of injury. Rheumatoid arthritis and smoking can also make the ligaments weaker, which makes them more likely to get hurt.

Symptoms of Skier’s Thumb

The gamekeeper’s thumb signs and symptoms depend on the intensity of the injury. You might have different levels of pain, bruising, or swelling where the ligament is hurt. Your grip might feel weaker, and you might not be able to move your thumb as much. If the ligament is completely torn, you might see a bump on the inside of your hand near the base of your thumb, and your thumb might hang in a strange way. When the injury is mild to moderate, you might feel:

  • Pain and swelling on the inside of your thumb joint
  • Bruising around the joint
  • Pain or weakness when you try to pick something up between your thumb and index finger
  • Tenderness if you touch the area.

Gamekeeper’s Thumb Diagnosis

To check for Gamekeeper’s Thumb, the doctor might gently move your thumb to see if it’s looser than your other thumb. This can be painful, so they might numb the area first. X-rays can show if any bones are broken. If more detail is needed, they might do an MRI or ultrasound to see the extent of your soft tissue damage.

Gamekeeper’s Thumb Treatment

Following are the two medical approaches to treat a gamekeeper’s thumb:

  • Non-Surgical
    If the UCL damage is minor, you might not need surgery. In that case, the doctor can recommend using ice packs to reduce pain and swelling in the first few days after the injury. They might also put your thumb in a cast or splint to keep it still for about 3 weeks.
    After that, you might start hand therapy and exercises to strengthen your thumb. You will probably need to wear the splint for about 4 to 6 weeks.
  • Surgical
    If your injury is severe, you need surgery right away. Waiting too long for surgery can cause more problems and make it harder to fully use your thumb later on. During surgery, the doctor will use a minimally invasive method to fix the ligament back to the bone using pins or stitches.
    After surgery, your thumb will be put in a cast or splint to protect it while it heals. Later on, hand therapy will help your thumb move better and regain its strength.

Bottom Line

In biology, the human thumb has a special name. It’s called an opposable thumb because it can move in a way that lets it touch your other fingers. It is unimaginable to live with a non-functioning thumb. That’s why understanding the gamekeeper’s thumb signs and symptoms helps in seeking timely treatment.

Visit our hand and upper extremity specialist, Dr. Luo, at Randy Y. Luo, MD, MBA. Our surgeon has advanced expertise in treating sports-related hand injuries. Call us at the following numbers to make an appointment:

(713) 794-3307
(713) 799-2300
(713) 794-3457

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