We use our hands to explore and manipulate the physical objects in the world we live in. To carry out this function, our hands are particularly sensitive to the textures and temperatures present in our environment. Our fingertips, in particular, have one of the highest densities of touch and temperature receptors in the body. Through our fingers, we can make out if an object is soft or hard, smooth or rough, sharp or blunt, hot or cold, and wet or dry, even without input from our other senses like our vision.
The fact that our fingers sense the outside world through touch, also makes them more likely to come in contact with adverse surfaces that can cause injury and pain. The high density of receptors on the fingertips also makes them more sensitive in terms of perceiving the injuries when they do occur.
Tenderness and pain are the primary perceptions that our fingertips of capable of. Tenderness in fingertips results in a distinct perception of discomfort when the fingertips are pressed. There is a feeling of heightened sensation, which makes even mild pressure very discomforting. This discomfort could also be painful at times. Tenderness results from an underlying tissue injury, even if the injury is not obvious.
Pain in the fingertips is a result of tissue injury or inflammation. Inflammation is a natural response of the body upon tissue injury. It is characterized by redness, swelling, heat, and pain in the affected area. However, not all pain in the fingertips is due to inflammation. Other factors may also elicit fingertip pain.
Read more on swollen fingers.
Causes of Fingertip Pain
The following are some of the most likely causes of fingertip pain.
The most common cause of fingertip pain or tenderness is trauma or injury to the region. The injury may be superficial, and affect only the outer layers of the skin and subcutaneous tissue on the fingertips. Alternatively, the injury could be deep, and affect the muscles, tendons, ligaments and bones of the fingers.
Cuts or lacerations are one of the most common types of injuries to fingers. Sharp objects like knives, blades, broken glass, and metal edges are the most common culprits. Interestingly, cuts can also occur with something as innocuous as paper. Such injuries may not even be perceived at the moment they occur, but become evident when the fingers are pressed.
Blunt force trauma can also cause injuries to the fingertips. This may occur in circumstances when the fingers are stubbed against or caught between solid surfaces. Deeper injuries may result from an object striking the fingertips with great force. An example is of the baseball striking the fingers, resulting in an injury known as baseball finger or mallet finger. Fingertips can also get injured by touching certain chemicals (such as strong acids and bases), or extremely hot or cold objects. Electrical burns also capable of causing painful trauma.
Fingertip pain may also occur with sustained, high-intensity physical activities that involve the use of fingers (especially the fingertips). This is particularly the case when the fingers are not conditioned for the activity. Examples include prolonged typing on a keyboard, and doing finger pushups.
Frostbite, or cold injury, refers to tissue injury caused by exposure or contact to extremely cold temperatures. Frostbite can result in permanent damage to the fingers, and is usually associated with prolonged contact with ice or snow. The duration of exposure that can result in cold injury depends on how low the temperature is. Even short term contact with very low temperature substances, such as liquid nitrogen, will result in a frostbite. Not all cold injuries are permanently damaging.
A mild form of frostbite is known as frost nip. Frost nip is a mild frostbite that doesn’t permanently injure the skin, but results in a feeling of pin-pricks and numbness in the fingers. Chilblains is another type of cold injury that does not freeze the tissue. It causes an itchy and painful swelling that is a result of poor circulation. The damage is reversible. Fingertip pain is a feature of all these forms of cold injury.
Raynaud phenomenon refers to reduced blood flow through the fingers due to constriction of small blood vessels in the region. The usual triggers for blood vessel constriction (also known as vasoconstriction) are cold and stress. These triggers usually elicit vasoconstriction. What makes the vasoconstriction in Raynaud phenomenon different is the intensity of the blood vessel constriction. The blood flow to the fingers is severely reduced, which starves the tissue of oxygen and nutrients. Fingertip pain is a common symptom. Apart from the fingertips, other regions such as nose, ears and toes can also be affected.
Compression of sensory nerves that supply the fingertip region can also cause fingertip pain. This condition is commonly referred to as pinched nerve. Despite the pain emanating from the fingertips, actual nerve compression may occur at any place along the course of the nerve, including the nerve root at the spine. One of the most common causes of nerve root compression is hernia of intervertebral discs. Closer to the fingers, nerve compression may occur in the wrist region, a phenomenon known as carpel tunnel syndrome. This also affects the fingers.
Inflammatory skin conditions that affect the fingers are also a cause of fingertip pain. Two common examples of such skin conditions include shingles and cellulitis. Shingles is caused by a reactivation of the chicken pox virus in the body. The upper region of the body is most commonly affected. Pain is one of the main symptoms, and hands and fingertips may be affected. Cellulitis is a bacterial infection that affects the deeper tissues under the skin.
Fingertip pain may also emanate from conditions that primarily affect the nails on the fingers. Injuries and infections to the fingernails and the sensitive nail bed will result in fingertip pain. Injuries to fingernails may occur through nail biting, manicuring, nail clipping, and blunt trauma. Paronychia is an example of a painful infection of skin around the nails .
Read more on fingernail abnormalities.
Apart from the above mentioned situations, fingertip main may also be a feature in conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, osteoporosis, skin blisters, fibromyalgia, splinters in skin, cardiac pain, peripheral neuropathy, insect bites and stings.