"Saying it’s OK because the injury is to the non-shooting hand is like saying it’s OK to have an injury to your non-walking foot."
--Chris Mullin, Golden State Warriors
(three hand surgeries to his right (non-shooting) hand)
Many different physical gifts combine to produce athletic greatness. In basketball, one essential quality is certainly the player's hands. Quick hands. Strong hands. Big hands. Fast hands. Some of the greatest players in our game's history have been able to exhibit prowess with a basketball, all because of their hands. However, hand injury can be serious enough to interrupt a season or impact a career.
To the basketball player, wrist, hand, and finger injuries are not as prevalent as injuries to the ankle or knee. However, our injury data files indicate that among NBA players' injuries to the hand are the most frequent injury to the upper extremity. They can include routine sprains or contusions, or can also be defined in medical terms such as "gamekeeper's thumb" or "mallet finger". If ignored, these can lead to early arthritic changes and possible deformity down the road.
Chris Mullin suffered several hand injuries in his 16-year career.
Tom Hauck/Getty Images
There are 27 bones in the wrist, hand, and fingers. Long muscle tendons from the forearm end at various sites, and there are ligaments that connect one bone to another. These tendons and ligaments contribute significantly to the joint strength and stability.
This essay will focus solely on finger injuries, but this does not diminish the importance injury to the wrist or hand.
In many instances, finger injury does not involve a traumatic twist like an ankle or knee sprain, but rather a force on the right area the right way at the right time. One of the surgical injuries that Chris Mullin sustained was a torn ligament at his fifth finger (the "pinky"). He was moving one way and his finger got caught in the jersey of an opposing player who was moving the other way. In this process, Chris' finger was stretched away from his hand, and a ligament tore.
Split second actions such as this occur all of the time, and sometimes the consequences are distressing. Thumb sprains can occur the same sort of way when a contact causes the thumb to move farther than it is designed to do. A sprain to one of the collateral ligaments of the thumb joint is classified as a "gamekeeper's thumb". Injuries to the finger tendons don't occur with the same frequency as the ligament sprain, but they can have some long-term implications. One such injury is the "mallet finger". The tendon damage is such that the fingertip simply droops regardless of how hard the athlete tries to straighten it out.
Providing the proper care for finger injuries is a challenge for our team's medical personnel. Finger rehabilitation may involve compression bandages to control swelling and in some cases splinting necessary. Also, we use therapeutic putty or ball squeezing exercises to strengthen the fingers. Many players use a commercial elastic support to splint their fingers. This "buddy taping" method is a great way of protecting an injury without compromising their skills. There are also many athletic taping methods to protect the thumb. The idea is to prevent the thumb from going too far away from the hand when it gets caught in traffic. Regardless if it is the "shooting hand" or not, two healthy hands are vital to success at every level of basketball.
Tom Abdenour in his 15th season as the athletic trainer for the Warriors. He spent his 2000 offseason serving as the athletic trainer for the gold medal-winning USA Men's Basketball Team at the Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia. He also stays involved with the community as a member of the NBA's National All-Star Reading Team -- part of the Read to Achieve program.
Abdenour is hosting NBA.com's Gonna Make You Sweat: NBA Health & Conditioning section by answering fan questions and providing his insight and expertise on a series of fitness and rehabilitation issues.