A distal radius fracture, also known as a broken wrist, typically occurs due to direct trauma to the wrist, or after a fall onto an outstretched hand. We see distal radius fractures in skiers, snowboarders, hikers, and cyclists. This is one of the most common injuries we see here in the mountains with our active patient population.
Patients with a distal radius fracture often come to our clinic after suffering a blow to the wrist in a contact sport or by landing on an outstretched hand during skiing or cycling. Typically these patients experience pain and swelling in their wrist, with bruising and occasionally angulation of the bone resulting in a deformity. Bruising is very common. Patients may have difficulty moving their fingers, and it is not unusual to have some mild numbness and tingling in the fingers.
There are two bones that go from the elbow to the wrist. These are called, the radius and the ulna. The radius is the larger of the two. The radius lies on the thumb side of the forearm and supports a majority of force across the wrist. Distal radius fractures occur toward the end of the radius, near the wrist. These injures range from simple fractures with very little displacement to severe breaks with multiple fragments. Severe fractures are at higher risk of not healing or healing with improper alignment.
Simple distal radius fractures can be fixed non-operatively. If the bones are relatively well aligned, these fractures heal in a cast, and typically do very well. If the fracture is more severe, surgery may be required. In this case a plate will be inserted to realign and stabilize the broken bone. When we do this surgery, we normally place an incision of the palm side of the wrist, just below the wrist crease. The procedure is done on an outpatient basis, and most patients are out of the hospital the same day.
After surgery patients are wrapped in ace bandage and splinted for two weeks. During this time patients are encouraged to move the fingers, and elevate the arm. After two weeks the wrist is casted and hand exercises are encouraged but without heavy lifting. At one month we transition our patients into a brace, and gradually increase their activity level. Whether we choose an operative, or a non-operative treatment plan, our patients are mostly recovered by 10-12 weeks and fully healed by six months.