A broken arm involves one or more of the three bones in your arm — the ulna, radius and humerus. One of the most common causes of a broken arm is falling onto an outstretched hand. If you think you or your child has broken an arm, seek prompt medical attention. It's important to treat a fracture as soon as possible for proper healing.
Treatment depends on the site and severity of the injury. A simple break might be treated with a sling, ice and rest. However, the bone may require realignment (reduction) in the emergency room.
A more complicated break might require surgery to realign the broken bone and to implant wires, plates, nails or screws to keep the bone in place during healing.
A snap or cracking sound might be your first indication you've broken an arm. Signs and symptoms include:
If you have enough pain in your arm that you can't use it normally, see a doctor right away. The same applies to your child. Delays in diagnosis and treatment of a broken arm, especially for children, who heal faster than adults do, can lead to poor healing.
Common causes for a broken arm include:
Certain medical conditions or physical activities can increase the risk of a broken arm.
Any sport that involves physical contact or increases your risk of falling — including football, soccer, gymnastics, skiing and skateboarding — also increases the risk of a broken arm.
Conditions that weaken bones, such as osteoporosis and bone tumors, increase your risk of a broken arm. This type of break is known as a pathological fracture.
The prognosis for most arm fractures is very good if treated early. But complications can include:
Although it's impossible to prevent an accident, these tips might offer some protection against bone breakage.
Your doctor will examine your arm for tenderness, swelling, deformity or an open wound. After discussing your symptoms and how you injured yourself, your doctor likely will order X-rays to determine the location and extent of the break. Occasionally, another scan, such as an MRI, might be used to get more-detailed images.
Treatment of a broken arm depends on the type of break. The time needed for healing depends on a variety of factors, including severity of the injury; other conditions, such as diabetes; your age; nutrition; and tobacco and alcohol use.
Fractures are classified into one or more of the following categories:
If you have a displaced fracture, your doctor might need to move the pieces back into position (reduction). Depending on the amount of pain and swelling you have, you might need a muscle relaxant, a sedative or even a general anesthetic before this procedure.
Restricting movement of a broken bone, which requires a splint, sling, brace or cast, is critical to healing. Before applying a cast, your doctor will likely wait until the swelling goes down, usually five to seven days after injury. In the meantime, you'll likely wear a splint.
Your doctor might ask you to return for X-rays during the healing process to make sure the bones haven't shifted.
To reduce pain and inflammation, your doctor might recommend an over-the-counter pain reliever. If your pain is severe, you may need a prescription medication that contains a narcotic for a few days.
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs can help with pain but might also hamper bone healing, especially if used long term. Ask your doctor if you can take them for pain relief.
If you have an open fracture, in which you have a wound or break in the skin near the wound site, you'll likely be given an antibiotic to prevent infection that could reach the bone.
Rehabilitation begins soon after initial treatment. In most cases, it's important, if possible, to begin some motion to minimize stiffness in your arm, hand and shoulder while you're wearing your cast or sling.
After your cast or sling is removed, your doctor might recommend additional rehabilitation exercises or physical therapy to restore muscle strength, joint motion and flexibility.
Surgery is required to stabilize some fractures. If the fracture didn't break the skin, your doctor might wait to do surgery until the swelling has gone down. Keeping your arm from moving and elevating it will decrease swelling.
Fixation devices — such as wires, plates, nails or screws — might be needed to hold your bones in place during healing. Complications are rare, but can include infection and lack of bone healing.
Depending on the severity of the break, your family doctor or the emergency room physician might refer you or your child to a doctor who specializes in injuries of the body's musculoskeletal system (orthopedic surgeon).
Make a list that includes:
For a broken arm, questions to ask your doctor include:
Don't hesitate to ask other questions.
Your doctor is likely to ask you questions, including:
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