When to Seek Medical Care
Call your doctor after an accident if these signs are present:
- Significant pain that is not relieved by ice and home pain medications such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Motrin)
- A large amount of swelling or mild deformity of the arm compared to the opposite arm
- Significant pain with use or limited use of the affected arm
- Pain in one specific part of the arm when it is pressed
Your doctor may advise you to go directly to a hospital's emergency department. Under the following conditions, go directly to the hospital for emergency care:
- Visible bone sticking out through the skin
- Heavy bleeding from an open wound
- Complete lack of movement or sensation of part of the arm
- Obvious deformity that looks drastically different from the usual appearance
- Loss of consciousness
- Many other injuries
Exams and Tests
The initial evaluation by any physician, in the office or in the emergency department, begins with a thorough history and physical exam. By finding out the details of the accident, the doctor is able to determine what damage was done based on the mechanism of the trauma.
After taking a history, the physician will do a complete physical exam with special focus on the painful areas. The doctor is looking for signs of a fracture (such as swelling or deformity) and checking for possible nerve or blood vessel damage.
X-rays are typically the test used to assess for broken bones. At least 2 views of the arm are taken. Initially, most broken bones will have an apparent fracture or other abnormality on the x-ray. Some fractures are not always visible on the first set of x-rays. In those instances, a CT scan or MRI may be done immediately for further evaluation, or follow-up x-rays may be obtained at a later date.
Broken Arm Treatment Self-Care at Home
- The most important aspect of first aid is to stabilize the arm. Do this by using a towel as a sling. Place it under the arm and then around the neck. An alternate approach to keep the arm from moving is to position a rolled and taped newspaper along the swollen area and to tape it in place.
- Apply ice to the injured area. This can help to decrease pain and swelling. Place ice in a bag and leave it on the arm for 20-30 minutes at a time. It may be helpful to place a towel around the ice bag or in between the bag and the skin to protect the skin from getting too cold. Never put ice directly on the skin.
The most important aspect of treating fractures is to determine which ones can be treated with outpatient care and which require admission to the hospital.
In most instances, the broken arm will be able to be treated in the emergency department.
- Most fractures will need to have a splint or partial cast applied to stabilize the broken bones. Some breaks especially in the upper arm and shoulder may only need to be immobilized in a sling.
- In addition to splinting the broken arm, the physician will prescribe medicines for pain control and ice to decrease swelling.
- Typically, wounds that warrant admission to the hospital are these:
- Bones that have gone through the skin or have lacerations over the broken area
- Fractures that are associated with nerve damage
- Fractures that are associated with blood vessel damage
- Complicated fractures that have multiple breaks, involve the joints, or are unable to be stabilized in the emergency department or doctor's office