A broken wrist is a common injury. Having a broken wrist can mean a fracture on the bones of the arm (distal radius and ulna) or the carpal bones that make up the wrist joint. Often, people break their wrists trying to catch themselves and stop a fall.
A broken wrist can be very painful. You might need surgery to help your wrist heal, and severe breaks can take up to 6 months of recovery time. In addition to surgery, broken wrists are treated with splints, casts, and pain relievers.
The exact symptoms you experience when you have a broken wrist can vary depending on how severe the break is and which bone in your wrist is broken. In all cases, bruising and pain tend to be the first symptoms.
Symptoms of a broken wrist are the same in both children and adults. These symptoms include:
- severe pain
- pain that worsens when you move your wrist or hand
- pain that worsens when you grip or squeeze things with your hand
- tenderness in your wrist
- warmth and redness
- a bend in your wrist or bone protruding from the skin
If you suspect you have a broken bone, take first aid steps and get yourself medical attention as soon as possible.
How to tell a broken wrist vs. a sprained wrist?
Both broken and sprained wrists can cause very similar symptoms. It’s easy to confuse the two, especially because the pain from a sprained wrist can be more severe than the pain from a broken wrist in some cases. You can experience pain, swelling, bruising, and tenderness with either injury.
Unless your wrist has a bend or other visual signs of a break, it might be difficult to tell if it’s injured or broken. A healthcare professional will be able to tell for sure and get you the treatment you need.
How to tell a broken wrist vs. a dislocated wrist?
A dislocated wrist occurs due to a tear in the ligaments of the wrist and is also difficult to tell from a broken wrist at times.
A dislocated wrist will have similar symptoms of swelling, pain, and bruising. You may also feel pain or numbness in the forearm or fingers.
If you have recently suffered an injury or fall and think your wrist could be dislocated or broken, you should seek emergency medical care right away. Getting an x-ray or MRI is often the only way to determine the extent of your wrist injury.
The treatment for your broken wrist will depend on the severity of your break. The goal of treatment is to help the wrist bones heal, reduce your pain, and restore your wrist’s strength and flexibility.
Possible treatments include:
- Reduction. Sometimes a doctor will need to shift the bones in your wrist back into position so they can heal correctly. This is called a reduction. A reduction is done without cutting into your skin and is usually used to treat distal radius and ulna fractures.
- Immobilization. Your wrist is put in a splint or cast to restrict its movement and help your bones heal. You may be most familiar with plaster casts, but there are several types of casts that are used.
- Pain medication. If your wrist pain is mild, your doctor might recommend an over-the-counter pain reliever. For more severe pain, your doctor might write you a prescription for an opioid or other strong pain reliever.
- Antibiotics. Some wrist fractures cause bone to break through your skin. This is called an open fracture. If this happens, you’ll need an antibiotic to prevent infection.
Sometimes surgery is used to help heal a broken wrist. During surgery, pins, plates, screws, or rods are placed in your wrist bones to hold them together and help them heal. Bone grafts are sometimes also used to help treat a broken wrist.
You might need surgery if:
- your wrist is broken in multiple places
- your bones moved before they were able to heal
- you have an open fracture
- you have small bone fragments that could damage your joints
- your injury also damaged blood vessels, nerves, or ligaments around your wrist
- the break is in the joint of your wrist
Your recovery time can depend on factors such as the severity of your break, your age, and your overall health. You can generally expect to wear a splint for about a week. You’ll then wear a cast for at least 6 to 8 weeks.
You might need as long as 6 months to heal from a severe break. Your doctor, physical therapist, surgeon, and any other medical professionals you see can let you know what to expect during your recovery.
It’s a good idea to make time to take care of yourself when you’re recovering from a broken wrist. You can take steps at home to help your body heal and recover.
The tips below can help:
- Take it easy. Going back to work, school, or daily activities too soon risks reinjury and can slow your progress.
- Follow medical instructions. Your doctors and physical therapists will let you know when it’s a good idea to resume physical activities. It’s best to follow their advice and try not to do things too early.
- Take pain relievers. Managing your pain with pain relievers can ease swelling and help you heal.
- Elevate your wrist while you sleep. Keeping your wrist elevated at night prevents swelling and pain.
- Use ice. Putting ice on your wrist can bring down swelling. Do this in intervals of no more than 5 to 10 minutes.
- Exercise your fingers and elbow. Keeping movement in your finger and elbow joints can help you heal faster.
- Avoid smoking. Smoking can slow down the healing process.
Once your cast is removed, it can help to do exercises at home to strengthen your wrist. Your physical therapist can give you exercises specific to your break and range of motion. At first, this will include simple exercises to regain your range of motion and grip strength.
Common exercise includes:
- Gripping a rolled towel in your hand. Hold and squeeze a rolled bath towel for several seconds. Repeat the motion 10 to 15 times.
- Rolling your wrist. Turn your wrist over as if you were pouring a beverage. Go slowly and repeat the motion 10 to 15 times.
Exercises will increase in complexity as your wrist continues to heal. Eventually, you might lift light weights or use other wrist strengthening equipment. Your physical therapist will guide you.
Most people recover from a broken wrist without any long-term complications. However, long-term complications are possible, including:
- Nerve and blood vessel damage. You can injure the nerves and blood vessels around your wrist when it breaks. This can lead to numbness and circulation problems. It’s important to tell a healthcare professional right away if you experience either symptom.
- Permanent stiffness or pain. Some people have pain in their wrist for years or even decades after their initial break. Physical therapy, occupational therapy, exercises, or surgery might help in these cases.
- Osteoarthritis. Fractures can sometimes extend into your joints and lead to arthritis years later. You might notice pain or swelling in your wrist after decades of no symptoms.
For more information about broken wrists, you can read the answers to some common questions we’ve answered below.
Which wrist bone is most commonly fractured?
The most commonly fractured wrist bone is the radius. Your radius is on the thumb side of your forearm. The section of your radius that connects to the joint of your wrist is called the distal radius.
Can a broken wrist heal on its own or without surgery?
Your body will start to heal a broken bone on its own immediately. However, treatment can help make sure your bones grow back together correctly. Without treatment, your bones will grow back together but might not meet evenly.
Reduction and immobilization are treatments that can help your wrist heal correctly. In many cases, surgery won’t be needed, but your doctor will recommend it if reduction and immobilization aren’t enough.
When does a broken wrist stop hurting?
Some people have pain for a few weeks while other people experience pain for months or even years. Talk with a doctor about any pain you’re experiencing. Physical therapy, at-home exercises, and pain relievers might be able to reduce your pain.
Why does a broken wrist swell and feel hot?
Swelling is how your body responds to an injury. Your body sends fluids and white blood cells to the injury to help it heal, which leads to swelling. The increased blood flow is also what causes redness and heat in your skin.
How do you elevate a broken wrist while sleeping?
You can elevate your wrist using several pillows. It’s a good idea to sleep on your back and prop your wrist up beside you. Try to keep your wrist raised above your heart to prevent excess swelling.
You can also put pillows on your other side to prevent rolling over in your sleep.
Will my broken wrist ever be the same?
Most people make a full recovery from a broken wrist. It might take several months, but your wrist should completely heal. If healing is slow, physical therapy and occupational therapy can help you regain mobility and strength in your wrist.
Some people do experience long-term complications from a broken wrist, but this is rare. Ask your doctor if long-term complications are likely in your case.
Does a broken wrist cause arthritis?
If you have a severe wrist break that extends to the joint of your wrist, it’s possible for arthritis to develop years later. This happens because a break leaves the surfaces of joints uneven. The uneven joints then rub together and wear out more quickly than even joints, which can lead to arthritis for some people.
Can you still move your wrist if it is fractured?
It’s common for people to think that if they’re able to move their wrist at all, it means their wrist is not broken. However, this isn’t the case. Some people are able to move their wrists even when fractured.
If you can move your wrist but have pain, swelling, and bruising, it might still be fractured.
A broken wrist is a common and often painful injury. It can cause your wrist to bruise, swell, and bend at the wrong angle.
A doctor might have to shift your bones back into place so that they can heal correctly. In some cases, you might need surgery so that screws, rods, or other small tools can be placed in your wrist to help it heal.
Most people completely recover from a broken wrist, but it is possible to experience long-term complications. Physical therapy, occupational therapy, exercise, medication, and surgery can help you heal and manage your pain.