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Colles' Fracture (Distal Radius Fracture or Broken Wrist)

A Colles' fracture -- or distal radius fracture -- is often called a ''broken wrist.'' Technically, it's a break in the larger of the two bones in your forearm. The bone breaks on the lower end, close to where it connects to the bones of the hand on the thumb side of the wrist.

Colles' fractures are very common; they're the most frequently broken bone in the arm. In the United States, one out of every 10 broken bones is a broken wrist.

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So how does someone get a broken wrist? Usually, these injuries result from falling onto an outstretched arm or getting hit on the wrist.

Broken wrists are common in people who play contact sports, as well as skiers, inline skaters, and bikers. People with osteoporosis or thinning of the bones are at particularly high-risk for wrist fractures. But they can happen to anyone who takes a fall or gets hit.

In more serious cases, the following may occur:

  • The break extends into the wrist joint.
  • A piece of broken bone breaks through the skin.
  • The bone is broken in multiple places.
  • Ligaments may be torn.

These types of broken wrists may be harder to treat.

What Does a Broken Wrist Feel Like?

Symptoms of a broken wrist can include:

  • Pain, especially when flexing the wrist
  • Tenderness
  • Swelling
  • Bruising
  • Deformity of the wrist, causing it to look crooked and bent.

To diagnose a broken wrist, your doctor will give you a thorough physical exam. You may need several sets of X-rays, since the fracture may be hard to see at first.

Occasionally, a broken wrist can affect the nerves or blood flow. You should go to the emergency room if:

  • Your wrist is in great pain.
  • Your wrist, arm, or hand is numb.
  • Your fingers are pale.

 

What's the Treatment for a Broken Wrist?

If the broken wrist is not in the correct position to heal, your doctor may need to reset it. This can be pretty painful so it's usually done with anesthesia. However, painkillers will help afterward.

You will probably also need:

  • A splint, which you might use for a few days to a week while the swelling goes down; if a splint is used initially, a cast is usually put on about a week later.  
  • A cast, which you might need for six to eight weeks or longer, depending on how bad the break is (you might need a second cast if the first one gets too loose after the swelling goes away.)
  • Regular X-rays to make sure your wrist is healing normally

You will probably also want to:

  • Elevate your wrist on a pillow or the back of a chair above the level of your heart for the first few days. This will ease pain and swelling.
  • Ice the wrist. Do this for 15-20 minutes every two to three hours for two to three days. Be careful to keep the splint or cast dry while icing.
  • Take over-the-counter painkillers. Ask your doctor about nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), like ibuprofen, naproxen, or aspirin (except for children). They can help with pain and swelling.  However, these drugs have side effects, such as an increased risk of bleeding and ulcers. They should be used only occasionally unless your doctor specifically says otherwise, as this may delay healing.
  • Practice stretching and strengthening exercises of the fingers, elbow, and shoulder if your doctor recommends them.

Most the time, these treatments will be enough.  But sometimes, people with a broken wrist need surgery. Your doctor might suggest this if the bone is not likely to heal well in a cast. Sometimes, pins, plates, screws, or other devices are needed to hold the bone in place so it can mend.

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