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Definition

What is a broken forearm?

The forearm (lower arm) is the area between the elbow and the wrist. It is made up of two bones: the ulna and the radius. The ulna runs from the tip of the elbow to the little finger on the side of the wrist. The radius is the bigger of the two forearm bones and runs from the elbow to the wrist on the thumb side.

Forearm bones can break in several ways. The bone can crack just slightly, or can break into many pieces. The broken pieces of bone may line up straight or may be far out of place.

In some cases, the bone will break in such a way that bone fragments stick out through the skin or a wound penetrates down to the broken bone. This is called an open fracture and requires immediate medical attention because of the risk for infection.

Because of the strong force required to break the radius or ulna in the middle of the bone, it is more common for adults to break both bones during a forearm injury. When only one bone in the forearm is broken, it is typically the ulna — usually as a result of a direct blow to the outside of your arm when you have it raised in self defense.

How common is a broken forearm?

Forearm fractures account for most limb fractures. Wrist fractures are the most common forearm fracture. Please discuss with your doctor for further information.

Symptoms

What are the symptoms of a broken forearm?

The common symptoms of a broken forearm are:

  • Arm pain that gets worse with wrist or elbow movement
  • Pain or swelling in the forearm, wrist or hand
  • A noticeable abnormality, such as bent arm or wrist
  • Difficulty using or moving the arm normally
  • Warmth, bruising or numbness in the forearm or wrist
  • Numbness in the hand

There may be some symptoms not listed above. If you have any concerns about a symptom, please consult your doctor.

When should I see my doctor?

If you have any signs or symptoms listed above or have any questions, please consult with your doctor. Everyone’s body acts differently. It is always best to discuss with your doctor what is best for your situation.

Causes

What causes a broken forearm?

The most common causes of forearm fractures include:

  • Direct blow
  • Fall on an outstretched arm, often during sports or from a height
  • Automobile or motorcycle accidents

Risk factors

What increases my risk for a broken forearm?

There are many risk factors for a broken forearm, such as:

  • Osteoporosis (more common in women than in men)
  • Malignancy (pathological fractures).

Diagnosis & treatment

The information provided is not a substitute for any medical advice. ALWAYS consult with your doctor for more information.

How is a broken forearm diagnosed?

Most people with forearm fractures will go to an urgent care center or emergency room for initial treatment.

Physical examination and medical history

It is important that your doctor knows the circumstances of your injury. For example, if you fell from a ladder, how far did you fall? It is just as important for your doctor to know if you sustained any other injuries and if you have any other medical problems, such as diabetes. Your doctor also needs to know if you take any medications.

  • After discussing your symptoms and medical history, your doctor will do a careful examination. Your doctor will:
  • Examine your skin to see if there are any cuts from the injury. Bone fragments can break through the skin and create lacerations. This leads to an increased risk for infection.
  • Palpate (feel) all around your arm to determine if there are any other areas of tenderness. This can indicate other broken bones or injuries.
  • Check your pulse at the wrist to be sure that good blood flow is getting through your forearm to your hand.
  • Check to see if you can move your fingers and wrist, and can feel things with your fingers. Sometimes, nerves may be injured at the same time that the bone is broken, which can result in hand and wrist weakness and numbness.
  • The doctor may examine your shoulder, upper arm, elbow, wrist, and hand, even if you only complain of arm pain.

X-rays

X-rays are the most common and widely available diagnostic imaging technique. X-rays can show if the bone is broken and whether there is displacement (the gap between broken bones). They can also show how many pieces of broken bone there are.

How is a broken forearm treated?

Treatment of broken bones follows one basic rule: the broken pieces must be put back into position and prevented from moving out of place until they are healed. Because the radius and ulna rely on each other for support, it is important that they are properly stabilized. If the bones are not accurately aligned during healing, it may result in future problems with wrist and elbow movement.

Most cases of adult forearm fractures require surgery to make sure the bones are stabilized and lined up for successful healing.

Immediate treatment

While you are in the emergency room, the doctor may try to temporarily realign the bones, depending upon how far out of place the pieces are. “Reduction” is the technical term for this process in which the doctor moves the pieces into place. This is not a surgical procedure. Your pain will be controlled with medication. Afterward, your doctor will apply a splint (like a cast) to your forearm and provide a sling to keep your arm in position. Unlike a full cast, a splint can be tightened or loosened, and allows swelling to occur safely.

It is very important to control the movement of a broken bone. Moving a broken bone can cause additional damage to the bone, nearby blood vessels, and nerves or other tissues surrounding the bone.

Additional immediate treatment will include applying ice to help reduce swelling, and providing you with pain medicine.

Nonsurgical treatment

If only one bone is broken and it is not out of place, it may be possible to treat it with a cast or brace. Your doctor will closely monitor the healing of the fracture, and have you return to the clinic for x-rays frequently. If the fracture shifts in position, you may require surgery to put the bones back together.

Surgical treatment

When both forearm bones are broken, or if the bones have punctured the skin (open fracture), surgery is usually required.

Because of the increased risk for infection, open fractures are usually scheduled for surgery immediately. Patients are typically given antibiotics by vein (intravenous) in the emergency room, and may receive a tetanus shot. During surgery, the cuts from the injury will be thoroughly cleaned out. The broken bones are typically fixed during the same surgery.

If the skin around your fracture has not been broken, your doctor may recommend waiting until swelling has gone down before having surgery. Keeping your arm immobilized and elevated for several days will decrease swelling. It also gives skin that has been stretched a chance to recover.

Open reduction and internal fixation with plates and screws. This is the most common type of surgical repair for forearm fractures. During this type of procedure, the bone fragments are first repositioned (reduced) into their normal alignment. They are held together with special screws and metal plates attached to the outer surface of the bone.

Open reduction and internal fixation with rods. During this procedure, a specially designed metal rod is inserted through the marrow space in the center of the bone.

External fixation. If the skin and bone are severely damaged, using plates and screws and large incisions may injure the skin further. This may result in infection. In this case, you may be treated with an external fixator. In this type of operation, metal pins or screws are placed into the bone above and below the fracture site. The pins and screws are attached to a bar outside the skin. This device is a stabilizing frame that holds the bones in the proper position so they can heal.

Lifestyle changes & home remedies

What are some lifestyle changes or home remedies that can help me manage a broken forearm?

Please discuss with your doctor for further information.

If you have any questions, please consult with your doctor to better understand the best solution for you.

Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

Sources

Review Date: October 27, 2017 | Last Modified: October 27, 2017

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