What is a broken wrist?

A broken wrist refers to a break or crack in one or more of the bones of the wrist or hand. Also known as distal radius fracture, a broken wrist is a common hand injury. In fact, in the United States, 1 out of 10 broken bones is a broken wrist.

A broken wrist is very common in people who are into contact sports as well as those who are into biking, inline skating, and skiing. People who have osteoporosis or thinning of the bones are at risk of suffering from a broken wrist. Falls and severe trauma from motorcycle and vehicular accidents can also lead to this condition.

Symptoms of a Broken Wrist

Pain and swelling are the most common manifestations of a broken wrist. The pain can worsen when one grips, squeezes, or moves the hand or wrist. There can also be tenderness, bruising, stiffness which makes it difficult to move the fingers or thumb, and an obvious deformity (this can be a bent wrist or crooked finger).

Diagnosing a Broken Wrist

A broken wrist is diagnosed after a thorough physical examination and x-rays.

The x-ray is the most common and reliable technique to determine any broken bone or bones in the wrist or hand. It can show whether there is a gap between the broken bones and how many broken bones are there.

In some cases, additional tests may be needed such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and computed tomography (CT) scans to get better detail of the broken bones and to determine the extent of the injury.

How It Is Treated

There are several treatment options for a broken wrist. The choice would depend on several factors such as the age and activity level of the patient, the nature of the fracture, and the personal preference of the surgeon.

Nonsurgical Treatment

If the broken bone is in good position, the application of a plaster cast is recommended until the bone heals. However, if it is displaced (the alignment of the bone is out of place), then the doctor may do a procedure called closed reduction. It is a procedure on which the doctor “straightens” the bone without having to open the skin. Once it is aligned, a cast or splint may be placed on the arm.

The doctor usually monitors the healing of the fracture through regular x-rays. As to how frequent x-rays are taken will depend on the severity of the fracture.

Once the cast is removed (about 6 weeks), physical therapy is then recommended to improve the patient’s motion and function of the affected wrist.

Surgical Treatment

Surgery is recommended for more complicated wrist fractures or those that can’t be easily corrected with a cast.

The surgeon will perform an open reduction on which an incision is created to access and align the broken bones. The bones are then kept in their correct position using a cast, metal pins, plates and screws, an external fixator, or a combination of these.