Broken arm or wrist

A broken (fractured) arm or wrist is usually caused by a fall onto an outstretched arm. It can usually take one to two months to heal.

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 hospital or medical enmergency centre. If the injury is severe, call for an ambulance.

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 (read aboutsprains and strains). An X-ray in hospital 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 in a hospital accident and emergency department. The treatment differs depending on the severity of the injury.

First, a doctor will give you or your child painkillers and then fix a splint to the arm to secure it in position and prevent further damage.

An X-ray will be taken of the arm to see what kind of fracture it is. Even hairline fractures should will show faintly on X-ray.

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 anesthetic 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). Any metalwork is usually not removed unless it becomes a problem.

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 or two.

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. It's important not to get a plaster cast wet.

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.

The risk of re-breaking or cracking the bone once the plaster is removed is increased, especially in children. It is advisable for children to avoid trampolines, bouncy castles, soft play areas and contact sports for a further two to three weeks to minimise this risk.

You should not drive while in a cast. Seek advice from your doctor about when you can drive again.

Common questions about broken arm or wrist

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How do you know if your arm is broken?

If your arm has broken you may experience pain and tenderness, localised bruising and swelling, numbness, difficulty moving the arm, and bleeding if the bone has broken through the skin.

Are there different types of arm breaks?

When you break your arm, you fracture the bone. There are many different types of fractures. The main types of fracture are open, closed, displaced, and non-displaced.

An open fracture is when there is a break in the skin near the broken bone, or where there is an open wound. A closed fracture is when the bone has broken, but there is no open wound.

A displaced fracture is when the bone breaks and moves, so the two parts of the bone no longer line up. Surgery may be needed to deal with a displaced fracture. A non-displaced fracture is when the bone cracks, but does not move out of place.

How long does it take for a broken arm to heal in adults?

How long a broken arm takes to heal will depend on a variety of factors, including the severity of the fracture. In general, bones take between six to twelve weeks to heal, or longer. Children’s bones tend to heal more quickly than those of adults.

How long does it take for a broken arm to heal in children?

How long a broken arm takes to heal will depend on a variety of factors, including the severity of the fracture. However, broken bones in children generally heal more quickly than in adults. A simple fracture may heal completely within four weeks.

How do you treat a broken arm?

If you suspect your arm is broken, go to your nearest emergency department or if the break is severe, call for an ambulance. At the hospital, a splint may be placed on your arm to keep it in a stable position. An x-ray will determine whether the arm is broken, and if so, the nature of the break, and how severe it is.

Does a broken arm need surgery?

If the break is straightforward, a sling may be the only treatment needed. However, surgery may be necessary if the bones need to be realigned. After surgery, a plaster cast will be placed on the arm to protect the bone as it heals.

How long does a cast stay on a broken arm?

If surgery was not required, your arm may be in a cast for a few weeks. If you have had surgery, a cast may be needed for two to six weeks following surgery. How long the cast stays on your arm depends on the severity and nature of the fracture.

Should a broken bone hurt in a cast?

You may experience some pain for a few weeks after the cast is placed on your arm. Pain may occur when the fracture happens or shortly afterwards.

Can you fracture a bone and not know it?

If you fracture a bone, you will likely experience the following symptoms: swelling and bruising, pain, difficulty in moving the affected area, numbness, and bleeding if the bone has broken through the skin. If you’re not sure whether you have fractured a bone, it is best to assume it is a fracture and see a doctor.

Can you exercise with a broken arm?

It is best to avoid intensive exercise while your broken arm is healing, and you’ll find you won’t be able to do much exercise anyway. However, once the bone is healing, it is a good idea to do some gentle stretches and exercises to reduce stiffness.

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