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What to Know About Splints

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on May 01, 2021

A splint is a supportive device that protects a broken bone or injury. A splint keeps the injured part of your body still to help with pain and promote healing. Some splints are flexible and some are rigid. The type of splint you need will depend on the type of injury you have and the part of your body that is injured. 

What's the Difference Between a Splint and a Cast?

Casts and splints are both orthopedic devices that support and protect injured ligaments, bones, tendons, and other tissues. They are both hard wraps. If you have a broken bone, a splint or cast may be used to help keep the broken ends of your bone together to help it heal. 

Casts are custom-made to fit your arm or leg. They are made of plaster or fiberglass and must be removed in your doctor's office. A cast wraps completely around your injury. Casts are not adjustable and may have to be replaced if they get loose because the swelling goes down. Casts provide more support than a splint. 

Splints are also called half-casts. They don't provide as much support as a cast. The hard part of a splint doesn't wrap all the way around your injury. It's held in place with an elastic bandage or other material. A splint may be applied first if you have a lot of swelling. Splints can be custom-made or ready-made.  

What Are Splints Used For?

Splints are used to treat different types of injuries. Sometimes a splint is used before a cast, and sometimes a splint is used alone. Injuries that are treated with splints include: 

How To Take Care of a Splint

If you have a removable splint, follow your doctor's instructions about when you can remove it. Your doctor will also tell you if you can walk or put weight on your splint. Other general care tips include: 

  • Place your arm or leg on a pillow above the level of your heart as often as you can over the next 3 days to help reduce swelling. 
  • Ice the limb for 10 to 20 minutes every 1 to 2 hours for the next 3 days or until the swelling goes down.
  • Don't get your splint wet. 
  • Wiggle your fingers or toes if they aren't injured to help move the blood in your injured limb. 
  • Talk to your doctor about how to maintain your muscle strength and tone while you're in a splint. 
  •  Don't stick anything under your splint to scratch. 
  • If you're itching and can't remove your splint, try blowing cool air under your splint from a blow dryer or fan.
  • Don't use oils or lotions near your splint.
  • If your splint is irritating your skin, pad the edges with moleskin or tape. 
  • If you can't take off your splint, cover it with plastic sheeting while you take a shower. 
  • If you can remove your splint to take a shower, dry your skin well before you put it back on. 

When To Call Your Doctor

You may have to wear your splint for several days to several weeks. If you have any of the following symptoms, call your doctor: 

  • Numbness, tingling, stinging, or burning on or near your injury
  • Worsening pain
  • Damaged, wet, or broken splint
  • Drainage, pus, bleeding, or a bad smell coming from your splint
  • Trouble moving your fingers or toes
  • If the skin around your splint becomes discolored, pale, gray, or cold to the touch 
  • Your splint feels too tight
  • You develop a fever

Complications of Splints

Complications from splints can range from minor to severe, and may include: 

Bone movement. If you have a fracture that's been set, your bones may move out of place. 

Skin irritation. You may develop pressure sores or other types of skin redness or irritation. 

Stiffness in your joint. Your joint may become stiff after being held still in a splint. 

Burns. Fiberglass and plaster splints can cause heat burns. 

Neurovascular injury. Some types of dislocations and fractures can cause damage to your nerves or arteries when they are repaired.

Compartment syndrome. This is a rare but serious complication that occurs more often with casts than splints. It happens when the pressure in your muscles builds up to a dangerous level. This can interfere with the flow of blood to your muscles and nerves. Compartment syndrome can cause serious injury or death. Symptoms include: 

  • Numbness
  • Muscle pain that's worse than you'd expect from your injury
  • Severe pain when you stretch your muscle
  • Swelling of the muscle
  • A feeling of fullness of the muscle
  • Muscle tightness
  • Burning or tingling sensation in your skin
WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

American Family Physician: "Casting and Splinting."

Cleveland Clinic: "Casts & Splints," "Compartment Syndrome."

OrthoInfo: "Care of Casts and Splints." 

StatPearls: "Splinting."

University of Michigan Health System: "Splint Care Tips."

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