Is It Fractured?: Your Guide to the Common Signs of a Wrist Fracture

Would you believe that 1 out of every 10 broken bones that are diagnosed is a wrist fracture? A wrist fracture is a fancy term for a broken wrist and is one of the most common injuries in the medical world. Some fractures are more severe than others, but medical treatment is required nonetheless.

But how can you tell the difference between a sprain and a fracture? And how do you know when to seek medical assistance?

What If It’s Just a Sprain?

Oftentimes a fractured wrist can be misidentified as a mild or severe wrist sprain. Before rushing to the emergency room, be sure to understand the difference and educate yourself on what to do when you do suffer from a sprained wrist. You’ll find that both a sprained wrist and a fractured wrist are very common and have similar symptoms, so it’s sometimes difficult to determine which is which.

If, after you slip or fall and injure your wrist, everything is still straight and only slightly swollen, it might be a sprain. Another way you can tell if your wrist is sprained is to consider how much pain you’re in and how quickly the pain subsides.

There are a large number of bones in your hand so sometimes it’s difficult to tell if your mild or severe sprain could actually be a fracture. While an x-ray is expensive and time-consuming, it’s sometimes the only way to truly determine whether you’re dealing with a sprain or a fracture. It also helps alleviate some stress on your end to have an answer to your pain.

But What If It’s a Wrist Fracture?

A fractured wrist is a common occurrence in people who have recently tried to catch themselves while falling. You might also experience a wrist fracture in a car accident or it might be the result of a sports injury. 

Your wrist is comprised of 8 small bones that are then connected to your radius and ulna. When you attempt to catch yourself during a fall, your radius is the bone that takes the brunt, making it the most commonly broken bone in a wrist fracture. 

Are You High Risk? 

You might find yourself being a high risk for a fractured or sprained wrist if you’re active in sports, specifically ones like skateboarding or snowboarding. Another high-risk factor is if you’ve been diagnosed with osteoporosis, a bone disease that is characterized by low bone density.

53 million people in the United States either are already diagnosed with osteoporosis or are at high risk because of their low bone density. Otherwise known as the silent disease, many people do not know they have this disease until a slip or fall happens and they end up with an injury.

Even if you don’t find yourself playing sports often, any type of activity that is high in contact increases your chances of experiencing a wrist fracture. Even something as small as jumping on a trampoline can make you more high risk.

Know What to Look For

There are a handful of signs to look for when identifying a wrist fracture. Although nothing can be diagnosed for certain without an x-ray, these are symptoms you might encounter.

Severe Pain

Although the level of pain you feel isn’t a direct indicator of whether your injury is a sprain or a fracture, it could be a sign that there’s something more serious going on. Pain can be felt anywhere from the area of injury to the fingers or even up into the forearm.

Swelling

You might have noticed in previous injuries that you’ve had some swelling. This is because injuries cause fluids to build in muscle and skin. All that extra liquid is absorbed by the soft tissue, causing them to harden.

Inability or Difficulty Using Your Wrist and Hand

Even with a wrist sprain, using your wrist could be difficult. A fracture makes it much more difficult to bend it, hold various items, or put weight on it.

Numb or Tingling Fingers

This can be caused by damage done to the nerves in your wrist. While this damage might be minimal, it could be a sign of a wrist fracture.

Wrist Deformity

While this sounds fairly self-explanatory, a wrist deformity can be a telltale sign of a wrist fracture but isn’t always present even if your wrist is broken.

Doctor, Doctor Give Me the News

One of the easiest and most common ways to instantly tell if you have a wrist fracture is the use of an x-ray. Even if it’s a torn ligament in your wrist, an x-ray is necessary. Not only will this show the doctor if you have a broken wrist, but it will also give them more detail about the break such as if it is a displaced or non-displaced fracture.

Other imaging tests can give the doctors more insight into your injury if needed. CT scans can show the doctors if there are injuries to the soft tissues or blood vessels. The amazing part about this technology is that it will take a variety of x-rays scans and combine them to show your body’s internal structure.

Another test used is an MRI. Intricate photos of your soft tissue and bone are taken and will show even the smallest of fractures and injuries to your ligaments.

These are great resources for doctors to determine if you’ve done any deeper damage to your wrist. They’ll be able to look for nerve, muscle, joint, and blood vessel damage in the case that they were affected by the break, allowing them to make better decisions about what action needs to be taken.

Types of Wrist Fractures

While there are a variety of different types of fractures you could experience, there are 4 common breaks. These include displaced, nondisplaced, open, and closed. Each varies in severity as well as treatment.

Displaced

If you experience this fracture, your bone will break in two or more places. These pieces will not be lined up straight, making it difficult for the injury to heal properly on its own. 

Nondisplaced

A nondisplaced fracture is still a break and the bone will break either partially or all the way through. Although the bone will move, it will maintain it’s proper alignment, which is a huge plus!

Open

An open fracture is one of the most serious fractures. It is when the bone physically breaks the skin. If you encounter this type of break, seek immediate medical attention.

Closed

A closed fracture is the total opposite of an open fracture. It is a break that doesn’t penetrate the skin. While it may not be as serious of a fracture, it still may require medical attention.

Treatment

There are a variety of treatment options depending on the type of break you’ve experienced. Once you have a diagnosis from the doctor they will be able to tell you how to proceed with treatment.

If the bones in your wrist aren’t aligned properly when the break occurs, your doctor will have to set your bones. The break could have resulted in gaps in your bones or overlapping bone fragments. This process is to prevent your bones from healing incorrectly. Depending on the severity of the break, this process could be painful, requiring anthesis prior to the procedure. 

If your bones are aligned, you might be required to wear a splint prior to casting. The splint could be worn for up to a week to allow swelling to subside. You’ll then be put in a hard cast which will be worn for a period of 6-8 weeks, or longer, depending on the severity of your break.

While You Heal

It’s important to continue to take care of your wrist even after a cast is put on. Here are some ways you can make sure to stay on top of your recovery.

Keep It Elevated

For the first few days after the initial break, you’ll want to do your best to elevate your wrist above your heart. A pillow or a chair are great things to use to rest your arm on. This is important to the overall healing of your injury as it will help reduce swelling and take away some of the pain you might be feeling.

Ice, Ice Baby

Just like any other injury, ice is going to come in handy to keep swelling down. For the first 2-3 days after your injury, ice your wrist for 15-20 minutes every 2-3 hours. Be sure to keep your cast as dry as possible by using an ice pack or a towel.

A Pill a Day…

Sometimes the pain in your wrist can’t be fixed using ice, so it’s always nice to have a few over the counter options to choose from. Drugs such as ibuprofen and aspirin can help reduce pain and swelling. Be sure to talk with your doctor before taking these as they do have side effects.

Keep It Moving

Just because your wrist is confined in a cast doesn’t mean you have an excuse to stop being active. While there are limits on what you can do, you’ll want to make sure you keep everything moving as much as possible. There are plenty of finger, shoulder, and elbow exercises you can do that help strengthen and stretch your body while your wrist heals.

Follow Up

Depending on the severity of the break, your doctor might feel that it’s necessary for you to complete physical therapy after your cast is removed. This is to help rebuild the strength and range of motion you lost. It’s also a great way to help you prevent future injuries to the same area.

Your physical therapist will work with you to ensure you’re doing the right exercises at the appropriate times. If you’re pushing yourself too hard or too fast, it may impede the healing process. They will also give you exercises to complete at home.

Preventing a Future Wrist Fracture

Once you’ve broken your wrist once, you’ll want to do everything you can not to break it again. While physical therapy is a great resource to strengthen the bones you’ve broken, what else can you do to ensure you’re prepared for future falls?

Build Strong Bones

Milk isn’t the only way to build strong and healthy bones. Be sure to have a diet rich in nutrients, including adding calcium and vitamin D into your meals. Also, incorporate weight-bearing exercises into your daily life. Resistance training increases bone density by putting stress on your bones, enabling them to be strong and healthy.

Work Hard, Play Harder

If you’re an athlete, you’re probably itching to get active again after your wrist fracture. Be sure to protect yourself by utilizing the correct equipment when playing your sport of choice. Whether it be snowboarding, skateboarding, or something else, you’ll never regret keeping your body safe.

Be a Know It All

Let’s be honest, a wrist fracture isn’t something you get excited about. In fact, it can make even the easiest activities seem difficult. While it is the most common injury, keep in mind that it’s not temporary.

If you arm yourself with the knowledge to understand the difference between a sprain and a fracture, while also discerning how to prevent future injuries, your wrist, and your doctor, will thank you.

Looking to speed up your recovery? Read up on these tips to get your wrist back in tip-top condition!

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The Hand Surgery Specialists of Texas offers diagnosis and treatment for hand, wrist, and elbow problems in Houston, using the most advanced and minimally invasive medical techniques. Our orthopedic hand specialists and hand and finger surgeons are waiting to provide you with excellent care at one of our hand care centers in River Oaks, Clear Lake, North Houston, Katy/Sugarland, or Baytown