Trigger Finger

Trigger digit, also commonly referred to as trigger finger, can range from an irritating condition to a severely hindering one. At Nebraska Hand & Shoulder, we provide solutions for individuals experiencing trigger finger. Our minimally invasive procedure can eliminate the source of the condition and get you back to experiencing life without pain. You can learn more about what causes trigger finger below, or contact us today to schedule an appointment.

Introduction To Trigger Finger 

What Are Tendons? 

Tendons are the rope-like extension of muscles. They slide in a well-defined channel and attach to a bone to cause joint motion. There are specific sites along the course of a tendon where it is restrained by pulleys to prevent it from "bow stringing."

What Are Pulleys? 

Pulleys are tight bands beneath which the flexor tendons must glide. There is a sheath in between the pulley and the tendon itself. This is a very thin, hollow tube constituting a self-lubricating system. The A-1 pulley can be sacrificed in each finger without side effects because there are 4 more to hold the tendon (Figures 1-3).

In fact, only 2 of the 5 in each finger and 2 of the 3 in the thumb are needed for normal function. The thumb has 3 pulleys but only needs 2 for normal motion. The A-1 pulley at the base of the thumb, the metacarpo-phalangeal joint level (MCP), and the A-1 pulley to each of the fingers are overwhelmingly the main location of the problem "trigger finger."

A diagram of the Tendons and Pulleys in a Hand


Trigger finger was first described in 1850. Tightening (stenosis) of the first extensor compartment of the wrist was described by Felix de Quervain, a Swiss surgeon, in 1895. This problem is almost identical and more painful. These are among the most common pain-causing conditions of the hand in adults aside.

Two Diagrams of a Hand where the first is curved and the second is open

Underlying Cause

Careful evaluation of tissue taken from the pulley at the time of surgery for trigger finger reveals that the cause is cellular change (metaplasia) of the pulley. The tendon sheath narrows due to pulley thickening thus reducing the passage diameter. The narrowing causes localized tendon enlargement. This restricts the gliding of the flexor tendon, resulting in the snapping phenomenon, i.e. triggering (Figure 2 & 3).

It is unclear whether frequency or the force applied to the tendon contributes to development of a trigger finger. It mostly occurs after age 30. Age and genetics seem to play the greatest role in development. Frequent activity of fingers has not been proven to influence the onset.


Discomfort and Tenderness

At the onset, a patient with trigger finger typically experiences localized discomfort in the palm of the hand at the palmar crease (knuckle level). Local tenderness and sometimes a nodule may be felt if the palm is pressed firmly.

Swelling and Stiffness of the Finger

In most patients, the involved finger or thumb feels swollen. Visible swelling, however, is the exception rather than the rule. One of the most common complaints of trigger finger is stiffness in the morning, which must be separated from possible arthritis. As the day wears on, the feeling of stiffness usually resolves.

Pain and Inability to Move 

As the condition progresses, it becomes more painful, ultimately resulting in obvious snapping, getting to a point where one may have to manually straighten or bend the snapping finger with the other functioning hand. It can become too painful to move it through its own normal range of motion.

Triggering or Snapping

The most common triggering occurs in the thumb, second most commonly in the long finger. It can occur in all five digits, either simultaneously or one after the other. Actual triggering or snapping occurs due to the size difference between a tendon and its sheath (Figures 2 & 3).


Trigger thumb occurs in 1 in 1000 infants. Due to an infant's tendency to clasp his thumb in a fist, congenital triggering is not usually picked up until after the sixth month of life. The majority of patients presenting with trigger finger are in their forties or fifties, and about 19% (1 out of 5) of patients have multiple digit involvement. Most adults with trigger digit have or have had carpal tunnel syndrome.


Early Treatment 

The duration of symptoms prior to receiving any treatment has been shown to effect the rate of success in treatment. It was once thought that this could be treated within a few weeks of onset with a splint limiting MP joint motion, but splinting is ineffective. The problem is not caused by motion. Early treatment with cortisone injection gives variable results though and some can experience lasting relief. How cortisone helps is unknown.

Late Treatment 

If patients have symptoms for more than a few months, or if they have severe triggering, or are diabetic, cortisone injections are less likely to be effective. Minor surgery is often necessary for this group of patients. Patients with marked triggering and multiple involved digits have a higher rate of failure of non-operative treatment in both groups. Treatment for trigger finger with an injection causes some minor discomfort, it is given into a very sensitive area of the hand, however, only one injection is often necessary if it's going to work.

Operative Treatment 

Dr. Ichtertz is an expert in A-1 pulley release and performs this procedure on an outpatient basis. There is no blood loss and little risk encountered. Risks include a rare chance of infection, persistent local tenderness, or pain that may be of greater magnitude than the triggering of the finger (extremely rare). With percutaneous A-1 pulley release for trigger thumb, there is a slight chance of nerve injury, thus some may opt for open release of the thumb. Nerve injury with percutaneous finger A-1 release has not been reported.


A Diagram of Percutaneous Pulley Release
A diagram of a hand showing all of the flexor tendon pulleys


Some trigger digit patients seen go on to recover without the need for surgery. When surgery is undertaken, the prognosis is very good. A very small percentage of patients will continue to complain of local tenderness or pain.

Prognosis for A-1 Pulley Release

Dr. Ichtertz has a very successful track record with percutaneous trigger release. His failure rate is less than 1%. Other surgeons' result reported results to reveal a 6-10% failure rate.


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