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Arm, broken

Find out how to tell if you have a broken arm or wrist, where to get medical help and how long it takes to heal.

A broken (fractured) arm or wrist needs to be treated as soon as possible. It typically takes a month or two to heal.

This page covers:

Symptoms

What to do

Treatment

Recovery

Symptoms of a broken arm or wrist

Signs of a broken arm or wrist include:

  • severe pain and tenderness
  • bruising and swelling
  • difficulty moving the hand or arm
  • the wrist or arm being an odd shape
  • a snap or grinding noise at the time of injury
  • bleeding (if the bone has damaged the skin) – sometimes the bone may poke through the skin
  • tingling and numbness

Because of the shock and pain of breaking your arm, you may also feel faint, dizzy or sick.

It can be hard to tell the difference between a minor break and a sprain. It's best to assume it's a fracture until it has been checked by a doctor or nurse.

What to do if your arm or wrist is broken

If you think you or someone else has a broken arm or wrist:

  • go to your nearest accident and emergency (A&E) department or call 999 for an ambulance if it's a bad break – minor fractures can often be treated at a local minor injuries unit
  • avoid moving the affected arm as much as possible – it may help to support it in a sling that goes under the arm and around the neck; find out how to make an arm sling
  • stop any bleeding by applying pressure to the wound with a clean pad or dressing if possible
  • apply an ice pack (such as a bag of frozen peas wrapped in a tea towel) to the injured area if one is easily available
  • don't eat or drink anything in case you need surgery to fix the bone when you get to hospital

If your child has injured their arm or wrist, try to get someone else to drive so you can support and comfort them.

Treatment for a broken arm or wrist

When you arrive at the hospital, you'll be given painkillers and a support (splint) may be fixed to your arm to secure it in position.

An X-ray will be carried out to check whether your arm or wrist is broken and how severe the break is.

For a minor fracture:

  • a plaster cast or removable splint will usually be applied – sometimes this may be done a few days later, to allow any swelling to go down first (a splint can be left on until a cast is fitted)
  • you may be given a sling to support your arm
  • you'll be given painkillers to take home and told how to look after your cast
  • you'll probably be asked to attend follow-up appointments to check how your arm or wrist is healing

For more serious fractures:

  • a doctor may try to realign the broken bones with their hands – this will usually be done while you're awake, but your arm will be numbed and you may be given medicine to relax you 
  • surgery may be carried out to realign the bones – this will often involve putting wires, plates, screws or rods inside your arm, but sometimes a temporary external frame may be used
  • a plaster cast will usually be applied to your arm before you go home
  • you'll be asked to attend follow-up appointments to check how your arm or wrist is healing

Recovering from a broken arm or wrist

Your cast will need to stay on until the broken bone has healed. This usually takes a month or two, but can take longer if the break was severe.

While your arm is in a cast:

  • avoid putting weight or strain on the arm – don't stop moving it completely, but avoid activities such as carrying anything heavy, driving and sports
  • keep the cast dry and keep your arm raised (for example, on pillows) whenever possible – read more about how to care for a plaster cast
  • do some gentle exercises and stretches to reduce stiffness – your doctor or a physiotherapist will advise you about this; see an NHS leaflet on getting your hand moving after a wrist fracture (PDF, 170kb) for examples of exercises to try
  • get medical advice if you notice changes in your skin colour, unusual sensations in your arm or wrist, signs of infection (redness, swelling or smelly discharge), severe or continuous pain, or problems with your cast (it's too loose, too tight or cracked)

Speak to your doctor about when you can return to work and normal activities. They will probably suggest gradually increasing how much you use your arm and hand over a few weeks or months.

Your arm or wrist may be stiff and weak after the cast is removed. A physiotherapist can help with these problems, although sometimes they can last several months or more.

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