How to diagnose a broken wrist

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How to diagnose a broken wrist
Broken wrists may be one of the most common injuries, yet they remain difficult to diagnose. (Comstock/Comstock/Getty Images)

Broken wrists may be one of the most common injuries, yet they remain difficult to diagnose. With two main bones (radius and distal) and eight smaller ones (carpal), it often takes an X-ray to confirm wrist fractures. Children and the elderly experience the most wrist fractures, usually the result of trying to break a fall.

Skill level:


  1. 1

    Look for swelling, the most common symptom of broken wrists. Bruising may indicate a fracture too.

  2. 2

    Study your wrist. Obviously if the bone breaks the skin as it does in an open fracture, there's no question that you need immediate treatment. Sometimes broken wrists appear to be at an angle.

  3. 3

    Decide if you are suffering from pain or tenderness in the wrist. Perhaps you experience difficulty in holding heavier things in your hand.

  4. 4

    Pinpoint the exact location of the pain. If it's near the thumb area, you may have the more difficult to diagnose scaphoid fracture. Sometimes confused with sprained wrists, scaphoid fractures can't always be seen in a traditional X-ray and may require an MRI for diagnosis.

  5. 5

    Remember what activity preceded the problems with your wrist. Wrist fractures almost always come with some type of a trauma, like falling or a blow to the wrist.

  6. 6

    Consider your age. A common break called Colles' fracture occurs most often in older people, where osteoporosis causes brittle bones. This break of the major radius bone shows itself when the hand looks like it's twisted back and out from the forearm.

  7. 7

    Go for an X-ray. This is the most common way that doctors diagnose broken wrists. Fractures tend to be about an inch from the end of the bone. Sometimes broken wrists show up on X-rays as a small increase in density on top of the irregular surface of the bone.

Tips and warnings

  • If you're older than 50 with a broken wrist, ask your doctor if you need screening for osteoporosis.
  • Treatment for wrist fractures may be surgical or non-surgical.
  • Go to the emergency room if your wrist is deformed or you experience numbness or loss of coloration in the fingers. Other wrist injuries can usually wait until the doctor's office opens the next morning. Just keep your wrist in a splint, apply ice and take over-the-counter pain relievers.
  • Carpal tunnel syndrome sometimes occurs after broken wrists heal. Use a hand brace when doing repetitive wrist-motion activities like typing, gardening or knitting.

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