Wrist Fractures: Everything You Need To Know

One beautiful morning you decide to take your dog for a walk. As you are enjoying the fresh air, your dog takes off chasing a squirrel! The leash tangles around your legs, and before you know it, you are on your butt. Before you even have a chance to make sense of what just happened, you realize that something is wrong with your wrist. Instead of your wrist breaking your fall, the fall broke your wrist! This story is not as uncommon as you might think. Let’s learn more about wrist fractures and why we want to prevent them!

A broken wrist refers to a fracture involving any of the 10 bones that make up the wrist and forearm. Most commonly, it refers to a fractured radius bone (the radius is the forearm bone on the thumb-side of the wrist). The wrist is particularly vulnerable to injury since we instinctively outstretch our arms during a fall in an effort to brace for impact. This places a significant amount of stress on the wrist, which is problematic for those with weakened bones from osteoporosis.

How common are wrist fractures?
It has been estimated that more than 600,000 wrist fractures occur in the United States each year, which adds up to a hefty 170 million price tag for Medicare. Research has shown that 1 in 10 women over the age of 65 will break their wrist during their lifetime. Most of us know someone personally who has broken a wrist, and in the world of orthopedics, it’s not uncommon that I see several of these types of fractures in the office each week.

What are symptoms of wrist fractures?
Wrist fractures tend to be quite obvious. Immediately following the injury, you are likely to experience severe pain, swelling, bruising, and variable levels of wrist deformity depending on the severity of the injury. The diagnosis is confirmed with standard x-rays.

How are wrist fractures treated?
Treatment of wrist fractures depends on the amount of wrist deformity and your pre-injury level of activity. If you have a fracture that has not shifted out of position, you will likely be treated in a cast for 4-6 weeks, followed by a removable brace and physical therapy. Those with displaced fractures often require surgery consisting of either a plate with screws or pins to hold the fractured bone fragments in place as they heal.

What are complications of wrist fractures?
While wrist fractures are common, they are not without their share of complications. Immediately following the injury, you may develop carpal tunnel syndrome and injuries to tendons and ligaments which may require surgery. One study determined that 79% of people reported no pain or disability 1 year following their injury. However, 8% of people continued to experience moderate, severe, or very severe pain and disability even 1 year following the injury.

The bottom line on wrist fractures
Wrist fractures are common in those with osteoporosis and typically result from a fall onto an outstretched hand. Most of these fractures will heal over a 3 month period without long term pain or functional limitations. However, approximately 8% of people will continue to experience pain, stiffness, weakness, and disability even 1 year after the injury.