The wrist contains a total of three joints. This makes the wrist much more stable, similar to having only one joint. The joints also give your wrist and hand a wide range of movement. Furthermore, the wrist joints let your wrist move your hand up and down, for example, when lifting your hand to wave around. These joints give you the ability to bend your wrist forward and backward, side to side, and rotate your entire hand. The three wrist joints are known as the radiocarpal joint, ulnocarpal joint, and distal radioulnar joint, with additional details following below:
- Radiocarpal joint – This is where the radius (the thicker forearm bone) connects the bottom row of your wrist bones, which are the scaphoid, lunate, and triquetrum bones. This joint is mainly on the thumb side of your wrist.
- Ulnocarpal joint – This is the joint between the ulna (the thinner forearm bone) and the lunate and triquetrum wrist bones. The ulnocarpal joint is located on the pinky side of your wrist.
- Distal radioulnar joint – This joint is in the wrist but does not include the wrist bones. It connects the bottom ends of the radius and ulna.
A broken wrist is one of the most common fractures in the body. It occurs near the wrist joint on the thumb side, and it is usually the result of a fall onto an outstretched arm. A broken wrist can also be referred to as a ‘Colles’ fracture, which is a common type of distal radius fracture in which the broken portion of the radius is tilted upward. In addition, there are a total of four types of wrist fractures that can determine the best treatments from a physician, such as:
- Displaced or non-displaced – These are described as whether the bones or fragments have moved out of place or are still in place.
- Intra-articular or extra-articular – These indicate if the fracture extends into the radiocarpal joint or not. Fractures that are intra-articular are typically difficult to treat and heal.
- Comminuted fracture – A comminuted fracture is a break of the bone into multiple fragments.
- Compound fracture – A compound fracture breaks the skin and will require a physician to repair and close the wound. A compound fracture increases the risk of infection.
Causes & Symptoms of a Broken Wrist
The most common cause of a broken wrist is trauma, such as falling onto an outstretched hand or getting hit on the wrist. This can lead to a wide variety of wrist fracture types, including:
Distal radius fracture
This is the most common type of broken wrist. The wrist is made up of two forearm bones called the radius and the ulna, the radius being the larger bone. A distal radius fracture occurs when the distal end of the radius bone breaks.
This is the second most common type of broken wrist and a difficult one to treat. The scaphoid is one of the carpal bones in the wrist near the base of the thumb. Additionally, the healing process becomes much more difficult the farther the break is from the thumb because the area does not receive a large blood supply.
Distal ulna fracture
This occurs when both the radius and the ulna bones are broken.
A barton’s fracture is where you break part of your wrist and another part out of place. This condition requires further surgical treatment.
This type of fracture occurs when the radial styloid (the bulge at the end of the ulna bone) breaks. A Chauffer’s fracture often requires broken wrist surgery to repair.
Ulnar styloid fracture
The ulnar styloid is the visible bulge on the lateral side of the wrist. This type of fracture happens when the bulge breaks.
In most cases, broken wrists can be obvious, causing wrist deformity and / or severe swelling. Other symptoms of a broken wrist include the following:
- Deformity of the forearm – This is a known symptom that is caused due to a Colles fracture. Viewed from the side, the wrist has the appearance of an overturned fork.
- Bruising – Bruising may be noticed on the wrist and forearm.
- Sharp pain – This can happen at the moment of a fall or accident, sometimes accompanied by a “snapping” sensation.
- Inability to grab objects – You may find it very difficult to grab certain objects with your broken wrist, due to the amount of pain after the injury.
- Limited range of motion – This is followed by numbness and the inability to move the wrist and hand.
Who gets a Broken Wrist?
Broken wrists are not always the result of falling onto an outstretched hand. Therefore, other risk factors may play a role in developing the condition, such as:
Women are more prone to experiencing a broken wrist once they reach 50 years old, thus doubling the risk every 10 years. For men, the onset of age-related risk is much later, around the age of 80.
For children (8-11 for girls and 11-14) for boys, there is a period during which bones have grown longer because of growth spurts, however, the bone mineral density has not yet caught up. These may leave the newly-grown bones more vulnerable to fractures. For older adults, they are at greater risk of a broken wrist as hormone levels shift and bone mineral density begins to decrease, which is the same mechanism that causes osteoporosis.
Working in occupations that require you to climb and/or operate machinery can put you at an increased risk of breaking your wrist.
Athletes who participate in sports that involve potential falls, such as skiing, snowboarding, or figure skating, are also at greater risk of a broken wrist.
Another cause of a broken wrist is a vehicle accident or similar traumatic event. However, a majority of these are the result of falls.
How Does a Broken Wrist Affect You? How Serious is it?
Complications of a broken wrist are quite rare, however, they include the following:
- Nerve or blood vessel damage – Trauma to the wrist can injure adjacent nerves and blood vessels. It is required to seek immediate attention if you have numbness or circulation problems.
- Ongoing stiffness and disability – Stiffness, pain, or aching in the affected wrist typically relieve itself eventually after you have been treated with a cast or after surgery. However, you may have permanent stiffness or pain if you leave your fractured wrist untreated.
- Osteoarthritis – Fractures that extend into a joint can cause arthritis years later.
Recommended Treatment & Rehabilitation for a Broken Wrist
In order to get a clear diagnosis of a broken wrist, your physician will perform a regular three-step diagnostic process, which involves a complete medical history, physical exam, and additional imaging tests. First, your physician will ask you for a description of your symptoms, how they started, and what triggered them.
Next, he or she will examine your wrist and forearm for any dislocation or discoloration. Your doctor may also manipulate your wrist or ask you to perform certain hand or wrist movements. Further imaging tests may be ordered to increase the chance of getting a clearer diagnosis for your broken wrist. Some of these include:
- Computed tomography (CT) scan – CT scans can uncover wrist fractures that X-rays usually miss. Injuries to soft tissues and blood vessels can be seen on CT scans.
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) – Using radio waves and a powerful magnet to produce detailed images of bone and soft tissues, MRIs are much more sensitive than X-rays and can identify very small fractures and ligament injuries.
After a diagnosis has been done, physiotherapy may be further advised. A physiotherapist will work with you following a broken wrist (wrist fracture) to help regain regular wrist motion, strength, and function, and will provide education and training to help you prevent future fractures. Therefore, while your bone heals, your arm will be equipped in a cast or a sling to keep it still and promote healing. During that time, it is important to ensure that the arm does not get too stiff, weak, or swollen.
Depending on the amount of activity that is allowed for your type of fracture, your physiotherapist will prescribe gentle exercises to keep your shoulder, elbow, and fingers moving while you’re in the cast or sling. After your cast is removed, your wrist will most likely feel very stiff, and your arm will feel weaker. Therefore, your therapist will examine your wrist, and design a treatment plan specific to your condition and goals to improve its function and restore strength to your arm. Your treatment will include:
Your physiotherapist will help you identify and avoid painful movements and show you how to correct abnormal postures to reduce stress on the wrist. He or she will recommend resting the wrist short-term and applying ice to the area to help alleviate the pain. Your therapist may also apply a wrist brace to restrict wrist movement.
Your physiotherapist may use manual techniques, such as gentle joint movements, soft-tissue massage, and wrist stretches to get your wrist moving properly.
You will learn exercises and stretches to reduce stiffness and help your wrist, hand, and forearm begin to move properly.
Your physiotherapist will determine which strengthening exercises are perfect for you, depending on your specific areas of weakness. Therefore, your therapist will design an individualized home-exercise program to meet your needs and goals.
Depending on the activities you plan on continuing, your physiotherapist will teach you different ways to perform actions, while protecting your wrist and hand. For instance, keeping the wrist in a neutral position to reduce excessive force while performing repetitive tasks, and taking frequent breaks are ways to decrease your chances of reinjury.
Below are some examples of exercises for you to try. The exercises may be recommended to reduce symptoms linked to a broken wrist:
Wrist flexion and extension
Place your forearm on a table, with your hand and affected wrist extended beyond the table, palm down. Next, bend your wrist to move your hand upward and allow your hand to close into a fist, then lower your hand and allow your fingers to relax. Hold each position for 6 seconds, then repeat 8-12 times a day.
Wrist radial and ulnar deviation
Hold your affected hand out in front of you, palm down. Slowly bend your wrist as far as you can from side to side. Hold each position for 6 seconds, then repeat 8-12 times a day.
While seated, place your forearm and affected wrist on your thigh, palm down. Flip your hand over so the back of your hand rests on your thigh and your palm is up. Alternate between palm up and palm down while keeping your forearm on your thigh. Repeat this method 8-12 times a day.
Wrist extensor stretch
Extend your arm with the affected wrist in front of you and point your fingers toward the floor. With your other hand, gently bend your wrist farther until you feel a mild to moderate stretch in your forearm. Hold the stretch for at least 15-30 seconds, then repeat 2-4 times a day.
Wrist flexor stretch
Extend the arm with the affected wrist in front of you with your palm facing away from your body. Then, bend back your wrist, pointing your hand up toward the ceiling. With your other hand, gently bend your wrist farther until you feel a mild to moderate stretch in your forearm. Hold the stretch for at least 15-30 seconds. Repeat this exercise 2-4 times a day.
Alternative & Homeopathic Treatment for a Broken Wrist
If you experience mild symptoms of a fractured wrist, you may be able to ease your symptoms with a set of homeopathic treatments. Here are a few treatments for broken wrist:
- Take breaks from repetitive activities – Whether you are typing, playing guitar, or using a hand drill, try setting a timer beforehand for 15 minutes. When it goes off, stop what you’re doing and wiggle your fingers. Stretch your hands and move your wrists to help improve blood flow to these areas.
- Rest – If you ever find yourself straining or forcing tasks such as writing, typing, or using a cash register, relax your grip or reduce the force you are using. Try using a soft-grip pen or tapping keys more lightly.
- Stay warm – Keeping your wrist and hands warm can help with pain and stiffness. Consider wearing a fingerless glove or keeping hand warmers nearby.
- Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs) – such as ibuprofen, can help reduce further swelling and inflammation.