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HealthInfo Canterbury

Treating a broken forearm in adults

Broken arm slingThe way your broken forearm will be treated depends on many different factors, including:

You may need surgery to put the broken bone back into the right place and hold it there until it heals if:

Less complex breaks that are stable (the bones don't move around) usually don't need surgery, but will need a cast to hold them in the right place while they heal.

Sometimes a break seems to be stable and is put in a cast, but as the swelling goes down the broken bones move apart and need surgery to put them back in place. For this reason, you will have regular X-rays while your arm is in a cast, to make sure the bones stay in the right place while they are healing.

Things you can do to help your healing

There are several things you can do yourself to help your forearm heal, whether or not you are having surgery.

If you are not having surgery

Your hand and arm will be put into a cast to hold the bones in place and stop them from moving. The cast will probably start near your knuckles and go halfway up your upper arm with your arm bent at 90 deg. This helps to keep your forearm bones in the right place while they are healing.

You will wear the cast for six weeks, but can probably start doing some gentle hand exercises after three weeks.

You will still have to take special care of your forearm once the cast comes off. The same exercises that help with a broken hand or wrist will help with your broken forearm.

Surgery for a broken forearm

If you need surgery for your broken forearm it will be done by an orthopaedic (bone) surgeon.

Exactly what surgery you have will depend on what type of break you have. Your surgeon will talk to you about what it involves, the risks, benefits, and how you are likely to recover.

Your surgery will involve some metal (usually a plate and screws, and occasionally wires) to line up your bones properly and support them while they heal.

Sometimes a forearm bone is so badly crushed that it leaves a gap when it is put back into place. If this happens to you, you may also need a bone graft, which will usually be done during your surgery. If you need a graft, the bone will most likely be taken from your radius (forearm), or occasionally it may be taken from your hip. If it's taken from your radius, it will be on the same side as your injury, but it will be a very small amount and the bone will heal while your arm is in the cast.

You will probably spend one to two nights in hospital, and your arm will be in a splint for up to six weeks.

Going home

Before you leave hospital a physiotherapist and occupational therapist will assess what help you may need at home and arrange it for you. You can also talk to a social worker about any worries you may have about going home.

When you leave hospital you will be given a follow-up appointment, a discharge letter and a prescription or medication card if you need one.

If you have any concerns after you go home, please see your GP.

Recovery after surgery

You will need at least two weeks off work after surgery. Exactly how much time you will need depends on which bone was broken, whether the break was in the arm you use most (your dominant hand), what your job involves, and whether there are any light duties you can do.

For example, if you are an office worker you may need just 10 to 14 days off work. But if you are a manual worker you may need 10 or more weeks.

As you recover you'll have regular appointments with your surgeon, and some X-rays to make sure your forearm is healing well. You may also need some physiotherapy to strengthen your hand and get it moving again.

Wires usually need to be removed once you have healed. Exactly when that will happen depends on how bad your break was, and how quickly your bones heal.

For two to three months after surgery you will not be able to lift or carry anything with the injured arm. You should also avoid sport or any other activity that may make your injury worse. Your surgeon will let you know when it's safe to start doing these things again.

If you have wires that are poking out from the end of your forearm it's important to protect them from becoming caught on clothing, or anything else. You could pull the wires out this way, which would be painful – and you might need repeat surgery to put them back in. This can sometimes mean you don't heal as well as possible and your arm will never work as well as it could.

Written by HealthInfo clinical advisers. Endorsed by orthopaedic surgeon, Canterbury DHB. July 2017.

See also:

ACC help after an injury

Living with an injury

Page reference: 391316

Review key: HISHI-13267