A broken arm or wrist is usually caused by a fall onto an outstretched arm. It takes about six to eight weeks to heal in adults, and less time in children.
Doctors refer to all breaks or cracks in bones as fractures.
If you think you or your child has broken a bone go to your nearest doctor.
How can I tell if the arm or wrist is broken?
A broken arm or wrist bone will be extremely painful and there may also be:
- swelling or tenderness around the injured area
- bleeding, if the bone has damaged the tissue and skin
- These symptoms may also occur if your arm or wrist is sprained rather than broken. An X-ray is the only way to confirm whether or not the bone is broken.
If it’s a clean break, you may have heard a snap or a grinding noise during the accident. The bone can break straight across, diagonally, or in a spiral pattern. In severe cases, the bone may break into many pieces (comminuted), stick out at an angle or poke through the skin (open or compound fracture).
What you can do
It’s important not to eat or drink anything if you think you’ve broken your arm, as you may need a general anaesthetic (be put to sleep) to allow doctors to realign the bone.
Before reaching a hospital, a sling may help stabilise the arm (this goes under the arm and then around the neck). Avoid trying to straighten the arm.
Applying an ice pack to the injured area (try a bag of frozen peas wrapped in a tea towel). can help reduce pain and swelling.
If your child has injured their arm or wrist, try and get someone else to drive so you can support and comfort them.
How a broken arm or wrist is treated
A broken arm or wrist is usually treated by an orthopaedic specialist. The treatment differs depending on the severity of the injury.
First, a specialist will give you or your child painkillers and then fix a splint to the arm to secure it in position and prevent further damage.
A simple fracture where the bone remains aligned can be treated by applying a plaster cast. This holds the broken ends together so they can heal. You will be provided with painkillers to take home and information on how to look after your cast. An appointment will be made to attend a fracture clinic so specialist orthopaedic doctors can take over the care of your fracture.
With more severe arm or wrist fractures, the bones can become misaligned (displaced). If the bone is not realigned (reduced), the bones will not heal well. Doctors can use a technique called ‘closed reduction’ to pull the bones back into position.
Local or regional anaesthetic will be used to numb the arm (this is rarely used in children), or you will be put to sleep using a general anaesthetic. If doctors are happy with the bones new position, you may be treated with a plaster cast and regular follow-up appointments and X-rays.
Certain fractures are best treated with surgery to realign and fix the broken bones. This includes displaced fractures, fractures involving a joint and open fractures. Surgeons can fix bones with wires, plates, screws or rods. This is called open reduction and internal fixation (ORIF).
In rare cases an external frame is used to hold the broken bones, known as an external fixator.
After most surgery, a plaster cast is applied to protect the repair. A sling may also be provided for comfort. If you have surgery, you will usually be able to go home within a day.
Recovering from a broken arm or wrist
The plaster cast will stay on until the bone has healed. The exact length of healing time depends on the type of fracture, whether it has damaged the surrounding tissues, and the age of the patient. For example, a young child who has cracked their wrist will need to wear a cast or removable splint for just two to three weeks. But in older people, a wrist injury can take a lot longer to get back to normal and stiffness is extremely common.
The orthopaedic doctors will decide when you can take the cast off and when you can return to normal activities or work.
Your arm is often stiff and weak after being in a cast. Physiotherapy can be useful to help build up strength in the arm muscles and restore full movement. However, this is rarely needed for children.