Distal radius fracture (broken wrist)

Back to Patient education: hand & wrist

What is a distal radius fracture?

A distal radius fracture, or broken wrist, is a common bone fracture.

The wrist is a complex collection of bones and joints that join the hand to the forearm. The radius is the larger of the two forearm bones. The end closest to the wrist is called the distal end. A fracture of the distal radius occurs when this area of the radius breaks.

What causes a distal radius fracture?

The most common cause of a broken wrist is a fall on an outstretched arm. Athletes who play contact sports, as well as skiers, cyclists and inline skaters, are especially at risk. Other causes include trauma, such as a car accident, or osteoporosis (thinning bones).

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms of a broken wrist typically include:

  • Pain
  • Swelling
  • Tenderness
  • Difficulty moving the fingers, hand or wrist
  • Numbness or tingling in the fingers

In severe cases, the wrist may appear deformed.

How is a broken wrist diagnosed?

Your doctor will order an X-ray to confirm the diagnosis.

What is the treatment?

Treatment depends on the severity of the fracture, your age and activity level, and your overall health. It is important that you are carefully screened by a qualified orthopedic surgeon as soon as possible to determine the most appropriate treatment and ensure the bones heal in proper alignment.

Non-surgical treatment includes immobilization in a splint or cast, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs or prescription pain medication. This is often followed by rehabilitation exercises or physical therapy to reduce stiffness and restore movement.

Surgery is required if the bone is so out of place it cannot be corrected in a cast. Typically, the surgeon makes an incision to directly access the broken bones and improve alignment. Internal fixation devices such as plates and screws or pins are used to maintain proper position of your bones during healing.

Rehabilitation from both non-surgical and surgical treatment can be a long process. It may take a few months, or longer, for severe injuries to heal completely. In both cases, patients are usually able to resume light activities within one to two months, and more vigorous sports and activities within three to six months.