A broken wrist is also known as a Colles' fracture or distal radius fracture. Technically, it's a break in the larger of the two bones in your forearm. The bone breaks at the lower end, close to where it connects to the bones of the hand on the thumb side of the wrist.
Colles' fractures are very common; the distal radius is the most frequently broken bone in the arm.
So how do you get a broken wrist? Usually, these injuries are the result of falling onto an outstretched arm or getting hit on the wrist.
Broken wrists are common in people who play contact sports, as well as skiers, rollerbladers and cyclists. But they can happen to anyone who takes a fall or gets hit.
In more serious cases, the following may occur:
- The break extends to the wrist joint
- A piece of broken bone penetrates the skin
- The bone is broken in several places
These types of broken wrist may be harder to treat.
What does a broken wrist feel like?
The symptoms of a broken wrist can include:
- Pain, especially when flexing the wrist
- Deformity of the wrist, causing it to look crooked and bent
To diagnose a broken wrist, your doctor will give you a thorough physical examination. You may need several sets of X-rays, since the fracture may be hard to see at first.
Occasionally, a broken wrist can affect the nerves or blood flow. You should go to your local hospital’s Accident & Emergency (A&E) department immediately if:
- Your wrist is in great pain
- Your wrist, arm, or hand is numb
- Your fingers are pale
What's the treatment for a broken wrist?
If the broken wrist is not in the right position to heal, your doctor may need to reset it. This can be quite painful so it's usually done with anaesthesia. Painkillers will help afterwards.
You will probably also need:
- A splint, which you may have to use for a few days to a week while the swelling goes down. If a splint is used initially, a cast is usually put on about a week later.
- A (plaster) cast, which you may need to wear for six to eight weeks or longer, depending on how bad the break is. You may need a second cast if the first one gets too loose after the swelling goes away.
- Regular X-rays to make sure your wrist is healing normally.
You will probably also want to:
- Raise your wrist on a pillow or the back of a chair to above the level of your heart for the first few days. This will ease pain and swelling.
- Put ice on your wrist. Do this every 20-30 minutes, every three to four hours, for two to three days.
- Take over-the-counter painkillers. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen or aspirin, will help with pain and swelling. However, these drugs can have side effects, such as an increased risk of bleeding and ulcers. They should be used only occasionally unless your doctor specifically tells you otherwise.
- Practise stretching and strengthening exercises if your doctor recommends them.
In most cases, these treatments will be enough. But sometimes people with a broken wrist need surgery. Your doctor may suggest this if the bone is not likely to heal well in a cast. Sometimes pins, plates, screws or other devices are needed to hold the bone in place while it mends.