Understanding your humerus

The humerus is the long bone of your upper arm. It extends from your shoulder to your elbow, where it joins with the ulna and radius bones of your forearm. A humerus fracture refers to any break in this bone.

The pain from a humerus fracture often extends to either your shoulder or elbow, depending on where the break is, and recovery may last several weeks.

Read on to learn more about the different types of humerus fractures and how long they take to heal.

There are three types of humerus fracture, depending on the location of the break:

  • Proximal. A proximal humerus fracture is a break in the upper part of your humerus near your shoulder.
  • Mid-shaft. A mid-shaft humerus fracture is a break in the middle of your humerus.
  • Distal. Distal humerus fractures occur near your elbow. This type is usually part of a more complex elbow injury and sometimes involves loose bone fragments.

Any hard blow or injury to your arm can result in a humerus fracture, but some are more likely to cause certain types. For example, breaking your fall with an outstretched arm can often cause mid-shaft and proximal humerus fractures. A high-impact collision, such as a car accident or football tackle, is more likely to cause a distal humerus fracture.

Humerus fractures can also be pathologic fractures, which happen as the result of a condition that weakens your bones. This leaves your bones more vulnerable to breaks from everyday activities that wouldn’t usually cause any injuries.

Things that can cause pathologic humerus fractures include:

Treating a humerus fracture depends on several factors, including the type of fracture and whether there are any loose bone fragments. To determine the best treatment, your doctor will start by taking an X-ray of your arm. They may also have you do some movements with your arm. This will help them determine what kind of fracture you have and whether you have any other injuries.

In many cases, proximal and mid-shaft humerus fractures don’t require surgery because the broken ends usually stay close together. This makes it easier for your humerus to heal on its own. However, you’ll still need to wear a sling, brace, or splint to keep your arm from moving and stabilize your shoulder, if needed. Occasionally, surgery is required with either plates, screws, rods, or sometimes replacement of your shoulder joint with use of a prosthesis.

Distal fractures and more severe proximal or mid-shaft fractures usually require surgery. There are two main approaches that your surgeon may use:

  • Pins and screws. If you have an open fracture, which involves a piece of bone sticking through your skin, surgery will be required to clean up the broken ends and they may use pins and screws and plates to hold the broken ends of your humerus in place.
  • Bone grafting. If some of the bone has been lost or severely crushed, your surgeon may take a piece of bone from another area of your body or a donor and add it to your humerus. In some cases, doctors can even use an artificial material to create a new piece of bone.

Regardless of whether or not you need surgery, your doctor will probably suggest following up with physical therapy. This will help you learn exercises and movements you can do to help strengthen your arm muscles and regain your range of motion.

Healing times vary greatly depending on the type of fracture you have. If you have fracture that doesn’t require surgery, you’ll need to wear a sling for two to six weeks. Proximal fractures generally require the least amount of time, while distal fractures need the most.

If you have surgery, you may need to wear a cast, sling, splint, or brace for several weeks. During this period, you’ll need to follow up regularly with our doctor so they can evaluate how well the fracture is healing.

For severe fractures, you might need to have X-rays every few weeks for a couple of months. Most people are able to return to their usual activity level within a few months. Sometimes, physical therapy or occupational therapy is necessary to regain lost motion of your joints.

Most humerus fractures eventually heal without causing any long-term health problems. For the smoothest recovery process, see your doctor as soon as you notice symptoms of a fracture. You can also improve your chances of making a quick recovery by keeping up with your doctor’s recommended treatment, including physical therapy or exercises to help rebuild strength and flexibility.