How to Recognize and Treat a Broken Wrist

A doctor evaluating a patient's broken wrist

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Nobody denies that a broken wrist is a very painful injury. However, as bad as they feel, they're rarely life-threatening emergencies. In many cases, there's not much you can do to help at home. This is going to require a trip to the emergency department (or at least to a clinic that has the ability to take X-rays).

The following steps will help you learn to recognize a broken wrist and to decide how to take care of it.

Symptoms

Here's what to look for to tell if the wrist is broken. You don't have to see all of these, but the more you see, the bigger the chance that the wrist is busted.

  • Pain
  • Swelling
  • Bruising
  • Deformity
  • Numbness or tingling
  • Broken skin with bone visible
  • Limited mobility of the wrist

Immediate Response

If an accident occurs, make sure the injured person is in a safe location. Check for bleeding and apply pressure to any open wounds until the bleeding stops. If needed, the wound can be rinsed, ideally with sterile water or saline solution. Cover any broken skin with a sterile dressing.

If there are signs of a head, back, or neck injury, do not attempt to move the injured person unless there is an imminent physical danger. Otherwise, wait for emergency help to arrive.

Splinting a Wrist

If an ambulance is unavailable, it may be necessary to splint the broken wrist. Before splinting, check the following three things:

  • Check circulation by comparing the color and temperature of the injured wrist against the uninjured wrist.
  • Check sensation by asking the patient which finger you are touching.
  • Check motion by having the patient wiggle his or her fingers.

In an emergency situation, you can make a splint with a heavy stick, folded cardboard, or a rolled-up newspaper along with some one-inch strips of cloth. Avoid using duct tape or other adhesive tapes that may be difficult to remove later.

To make a homemade splint:

  1. Gently wrap the wrist in some cloth or padding to help cushion the break. Do not attempt to realign the bones; leave that task to the professionals
  2. Place the splint so that it rests on the joint above and the joint below the injury.
  3. Using strips of cloth, fasten the splint tightly enough to keep the joint steady and secure but not enough to cut off circulation. Try not to place ties directly over the wound.
  4. Be sure to immobilize the hand. Any movement of the hand will result in pressure on the wrist.
  5. Recheck circulation, sensation, and motion.

Once the splint is secure, you can ice the wrist to reduce swelling. Start by placing a cloth barrier on the skin to prevent frostbite. Ice the skin for 15 minutes, moving it constantly, then remove for 15 minutes. Repeat until help arrives.

Other Tips

If, after splinting, the wrist begins to swell, turn pale, or look blue-ish, loosen the ties a bit. They may be too tight. The ties should be secure enough to stabilize the wrist, but you should always be able to feel a pulse.

You should also loosen the ties if there in continued or worsening pain. If these measures don’t help and the injured person is still experiencing pain, you should remove the splint altogether.

If the injured person is feeling faint and has short, rapid breath, they may be going into shock. Lay them down without affecting the injured wrist and elevate the feet slightly above the head. Keep the person warm until help arrives.

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