Broken wrists are very common and can occur at any age. Technically called a distal radius fracture, the radius (wrist bone) is one of the top five most broken bones within the body.
Why are broken wrists so common?
Broken wrists are most common in seniors, children, and young adults. Most broken wrists occur due to a fall of some sort, where the outstretched hand is landed on. However, they are also a common sports injury and more likely to occur during contact sports or those that involve speed – skiing, snowboarding, skating, skateboarding, etc. Bicycle accidents and car wrecks are other common settings where people break their wrists. Most recently, we’ve seen an increase in broken wrists resulting from pickleball injuries, as the sport has risen in popularity.
When older adults break their wrists, they should also be checked for osteoporosis. Osteoporosis is a condition that causes bone strength to decrease, making fractures more likely.
How do I know if I broke my wrist?
You’ve fallen or otherwise injured your wrist. But how do you know if it’s broken? Common symptoms of a broken wrist include:
- Difficulty moving
Symptoms of a sprain and a break can sometimes be very similar. You may need an x-ray to help determine whether a break has occurred, and a medical provider can help with further evaluation and treatment options.
If you experience more severe symptoms, such as numbness or tingling in the injured arm, wrist, or hand, or if your wrist is oddly shaped or “crooked,” then you should seek immediate medical attention at an orthopedic urgent care or the emergency room.
Things you can do while you’re waiting to see a medical provider
Broken wrists can be painful. To help relieve the pain and keep from further damaging a wrist you suspect is broken, you can:
- Stabilize the wrist
Use a sling if you have one available, or a towel, to help support the affected wrist and keep it from moving.
- Remove jewelry on your wrist and/or fingers
Swelling is common with wrist injuries, and jewelry can become stuck or otherwise cause issues if it is not removed promptly. Jewelry would also have to be removed prior to treatment, especially if surgery is needed.
- Use an icepack on the injured wrist
Icepacks, when applied immediately following an injury, can help reduce pain and the risk of swelling.
- Take Tylenol or ibuprofen
Over-the-counter painkillers such as Tylenol or ibuprofen can help with temporary pain relief.
- Try to avoid eating or drinking before your appointment with a medical provider in case you need a procedure or surgery
Treatment and recovery of a broken wrist
If x-rays determine that you have a broken wrist, the fracture may need to be reduced. Reducing a fracture is when a medical provider moves the broken bone or bones back into place. For minor fractures, this can be done under local anesthetic. The wrist is then placed into a splint or cast to keep it from moving and dislodging the bones while they heal.
If your fracture is lined up well, then it usually is treated without surgery. Non-operative treatment typically consists of a cast or other immobilization device which is left in place for approximately six weeks. After cast removal, many patients transition to a brace. The brace should be removed periodically to work on regaining range of motion within the wrist, as the wrist fully heals.
If you have a more serious or complicated fracture, surgery may be needed. Depending on the type of fracture, a cast or brace may be used after surgery. In other cases, no additional immobilization is needed, but patients will be instructed not to lift heavy items while the fractures are healing.
Regardless of whether you had non-operative or surgical treatment, it will take time for your wrist to return to full strength. Your medical provider will recommend exercises to help and may provide a referral to physical therapy. It takes approximately three months for a wrist fracture to completely heal in adults. Healing time can often be quicker in children.