Do you have a wrist fracture? You’re probably wondering first and foremost about the healing time for a broken wrist. But also, what you can do to maximize your chances of a quick and full recovery.
In this article, I answer all the questions that people have after a wrist fracture, no matter what type it is.
To do so, I rely on my experience as a physical therapist for over 11 years and the available data in the international scientific literature on the subject. All references are at the end of the article.
Last update: May 2023
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- What are the different types of wrist fracture?
- What is the recovering time for a wrist fracture?
- What is the healing time for a broken wrist in adults?
- What is the healing time for a broken wrist in the elderly?
- How long does it take for a fracture in wrist to heal in a child?
- How long will pain last after a wrist fracture (radius, ulna or scaphoid)?
- What is the treatment for a wrist fracture?
- How long does it take to immobilize a wrist fracture (cast, splint, brace)?
- Do wrist fractures need surgery?
- What to expect at physical therapy for broken wrist?
- What are complications after a wrist fracture?
- When can I return to work after a wrist fracture?
- When can I drive after wrist fracture?
What are the different types of wrist fracture?
So, we usually talk about a “wrist fracture” (or a broken wrist in everyday language). This refers to fractures of one or more bones that make up the wrist joint, which includes the forearm and hand:
- A fracture of the scaphoid bone, which is one of the eight carpal bones in the hand that make up part of the wrist joint. This is a common wrist fracture, especially in men around the age of 25 (from falls on a motorcycle, bike, roller skates, or even from their height);
- A fracture of the radius or ulna bones, which are the two bones in the forearm that form the wrist joint with those in the hand. People over the age of 65 are more at risk of distal radius fractures due to osteoporosis, especially women. This is often called a Colles’ fracture and is the most common wrist fracture (80% of wrist fractures);
- A fracture of the trapezium, triquetrum, or pyramidal bones, which are three of the eight carpal bones in the hand.
No matter where the fracture is located, it can be:
- Non-displaced, which is usually the case. Often, immobilization is enough and surgery is not necessary. Recovery is faster.
- Displaced, which means there is a gap of several millimeters between the two fractured bone fragments. Surgery is often necessary, and recovery may take a little longer.
- Open, which means there is a wound and the bone is exposed to the air. These are more serious fractures that require urgent treatment to prevent infection.
If two wrist bones are fractured (regardless of which ones), it’s called a “ulna radius fracture“.
If the fracture line is slight, it’s referred to as a crack or “small fracture” instead of a full fracture.
It’s highly unlikely to miss a wrist fracture as its symptoms are obvious:
- Severe pain in the wrist, followed by swelling and bruising in the hours that follow. However, this criterion alone is not enough to diagnose a wrist fracture;
- Difficulty moving the wrist;
- Inability to use the hand or arm for everyday tasks.
X-rays are used to confirm a fracture, and can also show its location, type, and severity. This helps to refine the treatment plan.
However, an X-ray cannot predict the time and quality of your recovery: there’s no link between a poor X-ray and functional recovery.
Occasionally, a stress fracture may occur, in which case the symptoms are more subtle.
In children or adolescents, you may hear of a growth plate fracture in the wrist due to the unique composition of their joints at this age. Children usually recover much faster and without any lasting effects, even if the fracture affects the growth plate.
So, the scaphoid, radius, ulna, and trapezium bones are the wrist bones most susceptible to fracture. These fractures can be displaced or not. This article covers all wrist fractures.
What is the recovering time for a wrist fracture?
So, first things first, let’s make sure we’re on the same page about what we mean by “healing time”. Are we talking about when the bones are fully mended, or when the pain goes away, or when you can resume your usual activities?
What is the healing time for a broken wrist in adults?
⏱️ Here’s a handy chart that breaks down the various stages of recovery and healing after a wrist fracture in adults, whether it’s displaced or not, and whether it’s been operated on or not.
|Stage||Healing time (typical range)|
|Less pain||A few days to a few weeks|
|Bone healing is complete or well underway||6 weeks to 3 months (much less for children)|
|Swelling and bruising go away||A few days to a few weeks|
|No more need for immobilization||6 weeks to 3 months|
|Gradual return of hand function for tasks like eating and dressing||A few weeks to a few months|
|Start of weight-bearing activities with the fractured wrist (e.g. carrying bags, using weights)||2 to 5 months|
|Resumption of all physical and sports activities before the fracture||3 to 8 months|
🚭 Want to improve your chances of a speedy and complete recovery? Consider quitting smoking or reducing your smoking, if you’re a smoker. Smoking can slow down bone healing, so it’s best to kick the habit if possible.
What is the healing time for a broken wrist in the elderly?
The healing time for a broken wrist in the elderly can vary depending on the severity of the fracture and the individual’s overall health.
However, as a general rule, it may take longer for an elderly person to heal from a broken wrist than a younger person.
How long does it take for a fracture in wrist to heal in a child?
The healing time for a wrist fracture in a child is typically shorter than in adults.
Generally, the healing of the bones is completed or well on its way within 6 weeks to 3 months, depending on the severity of the fracture.
How long will pain last after a wrist fracture (radius, ulna or scaphoid)?
You don’t have any pain in the days following your wrist fracture! Great! But it’s not common.
Are you worried about the pain?
It’s normal to feel worried about the pain. However, it’s something that’s typical in the aftermath of a wrist fracture. The pain will decrease over the days and sometimes weeks.
💊 If the pain is too bothersome, over-the-counter medication like paracetamol or prescription medication like painkillers (level 2 or 3) can help relieve the pain. You can also try:
- finding a more comfortable position;
- applying ice to the painful area;
- using TENS, which is more effective for acute pain than chronic pain.
The pain will decrease over time. But it may resurface a bit when you start using your wrist again. You’ll gradually learn to adjust your effort to recover progressively while limiting the appearance of pain.
It’s difficult to say exactly how long the pain will last: it can range from a few days to a few months with varying intensity, but it will decrease.
Pain after a wrist fracture shouldn’t be a cause for concern and can be relieved through different means (cold, medication, etc.). It lasts from a few days to a few months.
What is the treatment for a wrist fracture?
What is the treatment for a wrist fracture? Once the diagnosis is made, the treatment can be recommended. It usually consists of:
- immobilization or rest of the wrist. This is called conservative treatment;
- rarely, surgery;
- physical therapy;
- taking painkillers (medications) to relieve pain or using other means (mainly ice).
How long does it take to immobilize a wrist fracture (cast, splint, brace)?
To maximize the chances of good bone healing, immobilization of the wrist is often necessary.
There are three options for immobilizing the wrist, and it’s up to the urgent care doctor or orthopedic surgeon to decide which type of immobilization is best based on their habits, the type of fracture, and your lifestyle:
- A splint – this is the least restrictive option, and you can remove it to wash yourself.
- A cast, often made of resin – this can be a cuff that goes from the middle of your hand to below your elbow without blocking your thumb, or it can sometimes extend all the way up to below your shoulder to immobilize both the wrist and elbow.
- No immobilization, but you will be advised to limit the use of your wrist.
In any case, a sling or arm brace can also be recommended to relieve the weight of the cast and prevent you from bumping your arm. Your physical therapist can prescribe one for you, and it will be covered by insurance (in France).
Be sure to put it on correctly, as shown below:
The immobilization usually lasts only 2 to 4 weeks for children and 4 weeks to 3 months for adults. A follow-up X-ray will determine whether the cast can be removed and the immobilization lifted.
Do wrist fractures need surgery?
Depending on the type and location of the fracture, immobilization may not be enough, and surgery may be needed. This is often the case with displaced wrist fractures.
The decision to operate also depends on your general health: the risk-benefit balance of an operation is lower in a person who is in poor health.
After reducing the fracture (to properly reposition the fractured bone fragments), the surgical team stabilizes the fracture by performing an osteosynthesis:
- One or more pins
- Screwed plates
- More rarely, an external fixator
Wrist surgery may be necessary, and pins or plates can be used to stabilize the bone fragments together for better healing.
Even after wrist surgery, immobilization through a splint or cast may be necessary.
What to expect at physical therapy for broken wrist?
Physical therapy sessions are often prescribed after a wrist fracture. Sometimes, the doctor recommends waiting until the brace or cast is removed, or even a few weeks after removal.
I’m not sure if that’s a good thing: some people haven’t retained the instructions given to them at the hospital or clinic. They don’t know, for example, whether or not they can use their hand, what movements to make to limit stiffness.
In people over 65 years old, I often see a very strong stiffening of the shoulder after a wrist fracture, especially when wearing a cast. The shoulder is sometimes more painful than the wrist!
Early mobilization of the shoulder would help limit pain and stiffness. In addition, physical therapists can assess the risk of falling and manage any post-fall syndrome.
👉 Here’s what I recommend:
- consulting a physical therapist for an assessment in the days following the fracture;
- depending on your overall health, the fracture, and your apprehension, the therapist may propose to see you only some times.
Rehabilitation consists of:
- maintaining and regaining mobility, strength, and function of the wrist, but also of the other joints (hand, elbow, shoulder, cervical spine);
- gradually resuming all daily activities involving the fractured right or left upper limb;
- relieving pain: taking stock of medication, giving postural advice, physiotherapy (TENS, massage (of limited relevance), application of cold).
Physical therapists show people exercises that they can do on their own, several times a day (just a few tens of seconds).
Rehabilitation can be started in the first few days following the fracture. It mainly consists of delivering advice and exercises that the person can do on their own, autonomously, at home, several times a day.
What are complications after a wrist fracture?
Don’t worry, in the vast majority of cases, people don’t experience any long-term effects from a wrist fracture.
In a few months, you’ll be able to resume all your activities, including sports like soccer, cycling, running, tennis, boxing, and manual labor jobs.
- For people over 50, studies show that 7 to 62% report moderate to severe residual pain 12 months after the fracture, and 5 to 78% experience functional limitations compared to before.
- Among people over 65 who have responded to a survey, 34% describe residual wrist deformity, and 10% are aesthetically bothered by it. This deformity is more common in non-surgically treated fractures, but the discomfort is not more significant whether the person was operated on or not.
- In some cases, particularly with non-surgically treated fractures, bone healing may not occur (59% of patients with a cast compared to 10% with a pin, 8% with a plate, and 17% with external fixation). However, this isn’t necessarily a problem because these people can still use their wrist well two years after the fracture.
Taking 500mg of vitamin C per day for the 50 days following the fracture reduces the risk of developing complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS).
Keep in mind that many people recover perfectly without any long-term effects from a wrist fracture, although residual pain and functional limitations may occur. The better your health before the fracture, the more likely you are to recover well.
When can I return to work after a wrist fracture?
Of course, it depends on your job. If you mainly work from home on the phone, for example, you may not need to take time off work beyond the first few days of recovery.
Conversely, if you work in an office that requires the use of both hands or a physically demanding job, you may need to wait several weeks or months before returning to work.
Generally, the hospital medical team will put you on sick leave until the follow-up appointment four to six weeks after the fracture. After that, it’s usually up to your general practitioner to extend the leave if necessary. You can return to work in the days, weeks, or months following the fracture.
On average, office workers can return to work in one to two months.
When can I drive after wrist fracture?
It’s best to wait for bone healing, which usually occurs four to six weeks after the fracture, before resuming activities like driving, cycling, or motorcycling.
Start with a short distance to see if you’re comfortable and pain-free, then gradually increase the distance.
Do you have any comments or questions? Your comments are welcome 🙂 !
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By Nelly Darbois
I love to write articles that are based on my experience as a physiotherapist and extensive research in the international scientific literature.
I live in the French Alps 🌞❄️ where I work as a physiotherapist and scientific editor for my own website, where you are.