A broken hand happens when one or more bones in your hand break as a result of an accident, fall, or contact sports. The metacarpals (long bones of the palm) and the phalanges (finger bones) make up the bones in your hand.
This injury is also known as a fractured hand. Some people may also refer to it as a break or crack.
To be diagnosed as a broken hand, the bone must be affected — one of the bones may be broken into multiple pieces, or several bones may be affected. This is different from a sprained hand, which is the result of an injury to the muscle, tendon, or ligament.
If you suspect you have a broken hand, see a doctor immediately. They can diagnose and treat your injury. The sooner you get medical attention, the better your hand can heal.
The symptoms of a broken hand depend on the severity of your injury. The most common symptoms are:
- severe pain
- difficulty moving fingers
- numb or stiff fingers
- worsening pain with movement or gripping
- crooked finger(s)
- audible snap at time of injury
Sometimes, it can be difficult to tell if your hand is broken or sprained. These injuries can cause similar symptoms, even though each one is different.
While a broken hand involves the bone, a sprained hand involves a ligament. This is the band of tissue that connects two bones in a joint. A sprain occurs when a ligament is stretched or torn.
Often, this happens when you fall on an outstretched hand. It may also happen if a joint in your hand twists out of place.
A sprained hand may cause the following symptoms:
- inability to use the joint
If you know what injury caused your symptoms, you may be able to pinpoint what’s going on. However, the best way to know if your hand is broken or sprained is to see a doctor.
A hand fracture is caused by physical trauma, such as:
- direct blow from an object
- heavy force or impact
- crushing of the hand
- twisting of the hand
These injuries can happen during scenarios like:
- motor vehicle crashes
- contact sports, like hockey or football
If you think you have a broken hand, see a doctor immediately.
But until you can seek medication attention, there are things you can do to care for your hand. These include the following first aid procedures:
- Avoid moving your hand. Try your best to immobilize your hand. If a bone has moved out of place, don’t attempt to realign it.
- Apply ice. To reduce pain and swelling, carefully apply an ice pack or cold compress to your injury. Always wrap the ice pack in a clean cloth or towel first.
- Stop the bleeding.
The goal of broken bone first aid is to limit further injury. It can also help minimize pain and improve your recovery outlook.
If you’re bleeding, you likely have an open fracture, meaning a bone is sticking out. In this case, go to the ER right away. Until you can get help, you can stop the bleeding by applying pressure and using a clean cloth or bandage.
Visit a doctor as soon as you think you’ve broken your hand.
It’s especially important to see a doctor if you have:
- difficulty moving your fingers
Can a broken hand heal on its own?
A broken hand can heal by itself. But without proper treatment, it’s more likely to heal incorrectly.
Specifically, the bones might not line up properly. This is known as a malunion. It can interfere with the normal function of your hand, making it difficult to do daily activities.
If the bones are misaligned, you’ll need surgery to realign them. This can prolong the recovery process even further, so it’s important to receive the right treatment from the start.
To diagnose a broken hand, a doctor will use several tests. These include:
A doctor will check your hand for swelling, bruising, and other signs of damage. They might also examine the surrounding areas, like your wrist and arm. This will help them determine the severity of your injury.
This allows the doctor to learn about any underlying conditions you may have. For example, if you have osteoporosis or a previous hand injury, they can understand what may have contributed to your injury.
If you recently been in a crash, they’ll ask about what happened and how your hand was injured.
A doctor will have you get an X-ray. They will use this imaging test to identify the location and direction of the break.
It can also help the rule out other possible conditions, like a sprain.
The purpose of treatment is to help your hand heal correctly. With proper medical help, your hand will be more likely to return to its normal strength and function. Treatment options include:
Cast, splint, and brace
Immobilization limits unnecessary movement, which promotes proper healing. It also ensures that your bones line up correctly.
To immobilize your hand, you’ll wear a cast, splint, or brace. The best option depends on your specific injury.
Metacarpal fractures are often difficult to effectively mobilize and will likely require surgery.
A doctor might have you take over-the-counter medication to control pain. However, if you have a more serious injury, they might prescribe stronger pain medication.
They’ll also recommend the appropriate dose and frequency. Be sure to follow their directions.
A broken hand usually doesn’t require surgery. But it might be necessary if your injury is severe.
You may need metal screws or pins to keep your bones in place. In certain cases, you might also need a bone graft.
Surgery is likely necessary if your injury involves:
- an open fracture, meaning the bone has pierced the skin
- a completely crushed bone
- a break extending to the joint
- loose bone fragments
Another common cause of surgery is if the bone is rotated, which can rotate your fingers as well and affect hand function.
You’ll also need surgery if your hand was already immobilized but didn’t heal correctly.
In general, broken hand recovery takes 3 to 6 weeks. You’ll have to wear the cast, splint, or brace during the entire time.
The total healing time depends on several factors, including:
- your overall health
- exact location of the break
- severity of your injury
Your doctor might have you start gentle hand therapy after 3 weeks. This can help regain strength and decrease stiffness in your hand.
You may also be asked to continue therapy after your cast has been removed.
To monitor your progress, your doctor will order multiple X-rays in the weeks after your injury. They can explain when it’s safe to return to normal activities.
If you have a broken hand, a doctor is the best person to diagnose and treat it. They’ll have you wear a cast, splint, or brace to keep your hand still. This ensures that the bone heals correctly.
As you recover, take it easy and let your hand rest. If you experience new symptoms, or if the pain doesn’t go away, let your doctor know.