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HealthInfo Waitaha Canterbury

Broken wrist

Kawititanga tāwhatiwhati o te ringa

Your wrist is made up of eight small bones called carpal bones and the two long bones in your forearm (the radius and ulna). Your wrist moves where they connect.

This makes your wrist a very complex structure, as there are many different joints within it.

If any one of your carpal or forearm bones breaks, it can change position slightly, causing pain and problems with movement and hand use.


Causes of a broken wrist

A broken wrist usually happens from falling onto an outstretched hand. Accidents, such as car or motorcycle accidents or falls from a ladder can cause more serious breaks.

If you break your wrist without significant force, your doctor may recommend checking if you have osteoporosis. If you meet the criteria, they may send you for a bone density scan.

Any of the bones in your wrist can break, but the most common bone to break is the radius in your forearm. This is called a distal radius fracture.

Another common wrist fracture is a scaphoid fracture, which is a break in one of your small carpal bones. This can be difficult to diagnose, and there is a risk a scaphoid fracture might not heal, and this might lead to arthritis in the future.

Your wrist can break in many different ways and some breaks are worse than others. How bad a break is depends on how many pieces the bone breaks into, whether they're stable or move around a lot, and whether the broken ends of the bone are still in the right place.

Diagnosing a broken wrist

If you've broken your wrist, it will be painful and swollen. It may be hard to use your hand or wrist. Your wrist may seem to be deformed because it's swollen, or a bone is out of place. You may feel pain just where it's broken or whenever you move your fingers. Your fingers may tingle, or your fingertips may be numb.

Some people can still move or use their hand or wrist and assume they have just sprained it. The break may only be diagnosed some weeks later when they see a doctor because the pain is not going away, or they cannot move their wrist as well as usual. This is more common with a broken scaphoid bone.

If you think you may have broken a bone in your wrist, it's important to see a doctor.

Your doctor will ask about how your injury happened, look at your hand and take X-rays to find out which bone is broken and what kind of break it is.

Because it can be difficult to see some wrist fractures in X-rays, your doctor may put your hand in a cast then ask you to return a week later for another X-ray. They may also X-ray above and below where you're sore to check if you have any other nearby injuries.

It's possible you'll also have a CT scan, which can show a complex break more clearly, or an MRI, to show any soft tissue injury.

Treating a broken wrist

The way your broken wrist 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 do not move around) usually do not need surgery but need a cast to hold them in the right place while they heal. The cast will probably start at your knuckles and go almost all the way to your elbow. This helps to keep your wrist bones in the right place while they're healing.

If the ends of the broken bone are not properly lined up, your doctor may need to move them back into place before you get your cast. You probably will not need surgery for this.

You'll wear the cast for four to six weeks but can probably start doing some gentle hand exercises after three weeks.

You'll still have to take special care of your hand and wrist once the cast comes off.

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'll have regular X-rays while your wrist is in a cast to make sure the bones stay in the right place while they are healing.

Self-care for a broken wrist

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

On the next page: Surgery for a broken wrist

Written by HealthInfo clinical advisers. Last reviewed June 2022.


See also:

ACC help after an injury

Care of your cast

Page reference: 348061

Review key: HIWAH-240323