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How to tell difference between wrist sprain and fracture

Updated February 21, 2017

Both sprains and fractures can be extremely painful, and both require medical care. However, with a sprain only a family physician is needed, where as a fractured bone needs special attention, a cast and possibly surgery. There are a few ways to tell the two apart and two different ways to treat the bone before seeking medical help or before medical help arrives.

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  1. In a sprain, the muscle or joint will hurt, not the bone. In many cases, however, this is difficult to differentiate when in extreme pain.

  2. There will be swelling or bruising around the area that is sprained. You will still be able to move the wrist, however it will cause great discomfort to do so.

  3. The sprained wrist can be red and even feel warm---open blood vessels under the skin can give off the feeling of slight heat.

  4. Apply an ice pack or a zip-close bag filled with ice to the sprain immediately.

  5. Compress the sprain with an Ace bandage. Keep the bandage tightly wrapped around the sprain for two days. Continue to apply ice to the area as well.

  6. Keep the injury raised above heart level to reduce swelling.

  7. Make sure the injured person is resting, no activity should be done while the wrist is healing. To be involved in heavy activities, such as lifting, playing sports or exercising, can make the injury much worse.

  8. If no progress is made within one week, seek medical attention.

  9. In most fracture injuries, the injured person will hear or feel a "snap."

  10. There will be a lot of swelling around the bone. There can be bruising as well.

  11. The arm, wrist, or hand will not only be incredibly painful to the touch, but moving the wrist will be almost impossible.

  12. In very extreme fractures, the bone can penetrate through the skin. In these cases, there can be a lot of blood and the bone will be visible.

  13. Seek medical attention immediately. Call an ambulance, or drive the injured person to the hospital. If the bone has penetrated through the skin, normally surgery is needed to reset the bone and stitch the skin.

  14. Apply an ice pack to the broken wrist. If the bone has penetrated the skin, you will also need to apply pressure the bleeding area with a gauze pad or clean towel.

  15. Line up two 12-inch wooden rulers next the wrist in the wrist's current position---do not attempt to move the wrist or the bone. Pad the wrist using small towels, and wrap the wrist very gently with an Ace bandage.

  16. No matter where the fracture is, keep the injured person lying down while waiting for medical help to arrive.

  17. Warning

    If a fractured bone has broken through the skin, DO NOT try to push the bone back into the skin. This will cause severe pain and extensive damage.

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Things You'll Need

  • Ace bandage
  • Gauze pads
  • Two wooden rulers

About the Author

Andrea Griffith has been writing professionally since 2005. Her work has been published by the "Western Herald," Detroit WDIV, USAToday and other print, broadcast and online publications. Although she writes about a wide range of topics, her areas of expertise include fashion, beauty, technology and education. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in journalism and English from Western Michigan University.

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