A broken wrist or broken hand is a break or crack in one of the many bones within your wrist and hand. The most common of these injuries occurs in the wrist when people try to catch themselves during a fall and land hard on an outstretched hand.

Risk factors for a broken wrist or broken hand range from participation in certain sports — such as in-line skating or snowboarding — to having a condition in which bones become thinner and more fragile (osteoporosis).

It's important to treat a broken wrist or broken hand as soon as possible. Otherwise, the bones may not heal in proper alignment, which can affect your ability to perform everyday activities, such as grasping a pen or buttoning a shirt. Early treatment will also help minimize pain and stiffness.

If you have a broken wrist or broken hand, you may experience these signs and symptoms:

  • Severe pain that tends to increase during gripping or squeezing
  • Swelling
  • Tenderness
  • Bruising
  • Obvious deformity, such as a bent wrist or crooked finger
  • Stiffness or inability to move your fingers or thumb
  • Numbness in your hand

When to call a doctor

If you think you may have a broken wrist or hand, see a doctor immediately, especially if you have numbness, swelling or trouble moving your fingers. A delay in diagnosis and treatment can lead to poor healing, decreased range of motion and decreased grip strength.

A direct blow or crushing injury to your hands and wrists can break any of the bones in them. Common causes include:

  • Falls. Falling onto an outstretched hand is one of the most common causes of a broken wrist or broken hand.
  • Sports injuries. Many wrist or hand fractures occur during contact sports or sports in which you might fall onto an outstretched hand — such as in-line skating or snowboarding.
  • Motor vehicle crashes. High-velocity injuries that can occur during motor vehicle crashes may cause wrist or hand bones to fracture into many pieces, often requiring surgical repair.

Participating in certain sports activities or having certain health conditions may increase your chances of experiencing a broken wrist or broken hand.

Sports activities

Certain activities may increase your risk of breaking bones in your wrist or hand, such as:

  • Basketball
  • Football
  • Rugby
  • Wrestling
  • Hockey
  • Skiing
  • Snowboarding
  • In-line skating
  • Jumping on a trampoline

Health conditions

You may be more susceptible to broken bones if you:

  • Have osteoporosis or another bone disease
  • Are a smoker, because smoking affects the absorption of calcium
  • Have a diet that's lacking in bone-building calcium and vitamin D

Complications of a broken wrist or broken hand are rare, but they may include:

  • Ongoing stiffness, aching or disability. Stiffness, pain or aching in the affected area generally goes away a month or two after your cast is removed or after surgery, and may continue improving for up to two years after the injury. However, you may have some permanent stiffness or aching if your injury was severe. Be patient with your recovery, and talk to your doctor about exercises that might help or for a referral to physical or occupational therapy.
  • Osteoarthritis. Fractures that extend into the joint may cause arthritis years later. If your wrist or hand starts to hurt or swell long after a break, see your doctor for an evaluation.
  • Nerve or blood vessel damage. Trauma to the wrist or hand can injure adjacent nerves and blood vessels. Seek immediate attention if you notice any numbness or circulation problems.

You may initially seek treatment for a broken wrist or broken hand in an emergency room or urgent care clinic. If the pieces of broken bone aren't lined up properly to allow healing with immobilization, you may be referred to a doctor specializing in orthopedic surgery.

What you can do

You may want to write a list that includes:

  • Detailed descriptions of your symptoms and how the injury occurred
  • Information about past medical problems
  • Information about the medical problems of your parents or siblings
  • All the medications and dietary supplements you take
  • Questions you want to ask the doctor

Preparing a list of questions for your doctor will help you make the most of your time together. For broken wrist or broken hand, some basic questions to ask your doctor include:

  • What kinds of tests do I need?
  • What's the best course of action?
  • Will I need surgery?
  • Will I need to wear a cast? If so, for how long?
  • Will I need any physical therapy when the cast comes off?
  • Are there any restrictions that I need to follow?
  • Should I see a specialist?

What to expect from your doctor

Your doctor may ask:

  • How did the injury happen?
  • Was your wrist or hand bent backward or forward when the impact occurred?
  • Are you right-handed or left-handed?
  • Where does it hurt, and does any specific movement make it hurt more or less?
  • Have you had any previous hand or wrist injuries or surgery?

The diagnosis of a broken wrist or hand generally includes a physical exam and one or more imaging tests.

Physical exam

During the physical exam, your doctor will check the affected area for:

  • Tenderness
  • Swelling
  • Range of motion
  • Deformity
  • Open wound
  • Nerve damage
  • Impaired blood flow

Imaging tests

Imaging scans are crucial to the diagnosis of a broken wrist or broken hand. To diagnose your injury, you may have:

  • X-ray. Using low levels of radiation, X-rays are a good tool to visualize bone. X-rays are painless and take only a few minutes to complete.
  • CT scan. CT scans can often uncover wrist or hand fractures that X-rays might miss. Injuries to soft tissues and blood vessels also are easier to see on CT scans. This technology takes X-rays from a variety of angles and combines them to depict cross-sectional slices of your body's internal structures.
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). MRI uses radio waves and a powerful magnet to produce detailed images of bone and soft tissues. It is much more sensitive than X-rays and can identify very small fractures and ligament injuries.

If the broken ends of the bone aren't aligned properly, your doctor will need to manipulate the pieces back into their proper positions — a process called fracture reduction. Depending on the amount of pain and swelling you have, you may need a muscle relaxant, a sedative or even a general anesthetic before this procedure.

Immobilization

Restricting the movement of a broken bone in your wrist or hand is critical to proper healing. To do this, you may need a splint or a cast.

Medications

To reduce pain, your doctor may recommend an over-the-counter pain reliever, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol, others), ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB, others) or naproxen sodium (Aleve, others). If you're experiencing severe pain, you may need an opioid medication, such as codeine.

Therapy

After your cast or splint is removed, you'll likely need rehabilitation exercises or physical therapy to reduce stiffness and restore movement in your wrist and hand. Rehabilitation can help, but it may take up to several months — or even longer — for complete healing of severe injuries.

Surgical and other procedures

If immobilization isn't an option, you may need surgery to implant internal fixation devices, such as plates, rods or screws, or bone grafts to maintain proper position of your bones during healing. These internal fixation devices may be necessary if you have the following injuries:

  • Multiple fractures
  • An unstable or displaced fracture
  • Loose bone fragments that could enter a joint
  • Damage to the surrounding ligaments
  • Fractures that extend into a joint
  • A fracture that is the result of a crushing accident

In some cases, the surgeon may immobilize your fracture by using an external fixation device. This consists of a metal frame with two or more pins that go through your skin and into the bone on either side of the fracture.

It's impossible to prevent the unforeseen events that often cause a broken wrist or broken hand. But these basic tips may offer some protection.

Build bone strength

Build strong bones by:

  • Eating a nutritious diet with adequate calcium and vitamin D
  • Getting plenty of weight-bearing exercise, such as brisk walking
  • Quit smoking if you're a smoker

Prevent falls

Most broken wrists occur when people fall forward onto an outstretched hand. To prevent this common injury:

  • Wear sensible shoes
  • Remove home hazards
  • Light up your living space
  • Have your vision checked
  • Install grab bars in your bathroom
  • Install handrails on your stairways
  • Avoid slippery surfaces, if possible, such as snow- or ice-covered walkways

Use protective gear for athletic activities

Wear wrist guards for high-risk activities, such as:

  • In-line skating
  • Snowboarding
  • Rugby
  • Football
Jul. 17, 2014