How to tell the difference between a broken wrist & a sprained one

Updated November 21, 2016

Detecting the difference between a broken or sprained wrist depends on the severity of pain experienced after the injury. If you sustain an injury to your wrist that results in a break, pain will be immediate and intense. An injury that results in a sprain can cause discomforting pain, but won't be serious. Regardless of what type of injury your suffer from, getting assessed by a physician is important to accurately diagnosis and treat your injury.

Check to determine the location of your pain. Check to see if the pain is mild, dull and aching, or if the pain is shooting and sharp. If the pain is an immediate sharp and shocking sensation that shoots throughout your wrist, then you've got more than a sprain.

Check to see if your wrist is swelling. Look for any signs of immediate bruising or discolouration of the injured site. If the injured area doesn't have any of these signs, a sprain is unlikely.

Determine if the affected area is warm to the touch by gently feeling your wrist. Also see if your wrist makes a popping sound by gently rotating your wrist from side to side. If you have a sprain, your wrist will make a popping sound, whereas a warmth to your skin will indicate a broken wrist.

Get seen by a physician to see if any ligaments were stretched or torn, which will indicate a sprain. Your physician will conduct exams, such as a physical assessment of your injury, X-rays, and possible imaging exams (CAT scans).

Treat your sprain to aid in healing. According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, use the RICE method. This means resting your injury for 48 hours, icing the injury for 20 minutes at a time, compressing the injury with bandages, and keeping the injury elevated above your heart level.

Check to see how severe your pain is. If you have a broken wrist, the pain will be constant and radiate throughout your wrist. See if the bone has broken your skin.

Check to see how your wrist hangs. According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, if you've broken your wrist, your "wrist will hang in an odd or deformed way."

Get an X-ray by your physician. An X-ray will determine the severity of your break, such as determining if your wrist has broken in more than one location.

Protect your injury by getting either a splint or cast. If your wrist is too painful to undergo a casting, a splint can be applied by your physician until you're able to tolerate undergoing a casting. If your injury is too severe, you will need to receive surgery to fix the affected area before getting a cast.

Treat your broken wrist as told by your physician. This is especially important if you had to undergo surgery for your injury. Ice and elevate your injury, and don't engage in activities such as sports until advised by your physician.


Always get an injury checked by a physician, even if you think you didn't sustain a broken bone. Don't use heat to treat injuries, as this can cause more swelling to occur.


Don't engage in strenuous activity until your injury heals. Don't play sports which can cause further damage to your injury.

Things You'll Need

  • Physical exam
  • X-ray and imaging tests
  • Ice
  • Rest
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