Your doctor will examine your arm for tenderness, swelling, deformity or an open wound. After discussing your symptoms and how you injured yourself, your doctor likely will order X-rays to determine the location and extent of the break. Occasionally, another scan, such as an MRI, might be used to get more-detailed images.
Treatment of a broken arm depends on the type of break. The time needed for healing depends on a variety of factors, including severity of the injury; other conditions, such as diabetes; your age; nutrition; and tobacco and alcohol use.
Fractures are classified into one or more of the following categories:
- Open (compound) fracture. The broken bone pierces the skin, a serious condition that requires immediate, aggressive treatment to decrease the risk of infection.
- Closed fracture. The skin remains unbroken.
- Displaced fracture. The bone fragments on each side of the break aren't aligned. Surgery might be required to realign the fragments.
- Comminuted fracture. The bone is broken into pieces, so it might require surgery.
- Greenstick fracture. The bone cracks but doesn't break all the way — like what happens when you bend a green stick of wood. Most broken bones in children are greenstick fractures because children's bones are softer and more flexible than are those of adults.
- Buckle (torus) fracture. One side of the bone is compressed, which causes the other side to bend (buckle). This type of fracture is also more common in children.
Setting the bone
If you have a displaced fracture, your doctor might need to move the pieces back into position (reduction). Depending on the amount of pain and swelling you have, you might need a muscle relaxant, a sedative or even a general anesthetic before this procedure.
Restricting movement of a broken bone, which requires a splint, sling, brace or cast, is critical to healing. Before applying a cast, your doctor will likely wait until the swelling goes down, usually five to seven days after injury. In the meantime, you'll likely wear a splint.
Your doctor might ask you to return for X-rays during the healing process to make sure the bones haven't shifted.
To reduce pain and inflammation, your doctor might recommend an over-the-counter pain reliever. If your pain is severe, you may need a prescription medication that contains a narcotic for a few days.
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs can help with pain but might also hamper bone healing, especially if used long term. Ask your doctor if you can take them for pain relief.
If you have an open fracture, in which you have a wound or break in the skin near the wound site, you'll likely be given an antibiotic to prevent infection that could reach the bone.
Rehabilitation begins soon after initial treatment. In most cases, it's important, if possible, to begin some motion to minimize stiffness in your arm, hand and shoulder while you're wearing your cast or sling.
After your cast or sling is removed, your doctor might recommend additional rehabilitation exercises or physical therapy to restore muscle strength, joint motion and flexibility.
Surgery is required to stabilize some fractures. If the fracture didn't break the skin, your doctor might wait to do surgery until the swelling has gone down. Keeping your arm from moving and elevating it will decrease swelling.
Fixation devices — such as wires, plates, nails or screws — might be needed to hold your bones in place during healing. Complications are rare, but can include infection and lack of bone healing.
Preparing for your appointment
Depending on the severity of the break, your family doctor or the emergency room physician might refer you or your child to a doctor who specializes in injuries of the body's musculoskeletal system (orthopedic surgeon).
What you can do
Make a list that includes:
- Details about your or your child's symptoms and the incident that caused them
- Information about past medical problems
- All the medications and dietary supplements you or your child takes
- Questions to ask the doctor
For a broken arm, questions to ask your doctor include:
- What tests are needed?
- What is the best course of action?
- Is surgery necessary?
- What restrictions will need to be followed?
- Do you recommend seeing a specialist?
- What pain medications do you recommend?
Don't hesitate to ask other questions.
What to expect from your doctor
Your doctor is likely to ask you questions, including:
- Did the symptoms come on suddenly?
- What caused the symptoms?
- Did an injury trigger the symptoms?
- How severe are the symptoms?
- What, if anything, seems to improve the symptoms?
- What, if anything, appears to worsen the symptoms?