What is a broken arm?
A broken arm ranks among the most common fractures seen by orthopedic doctors in both children and adults. People often break their arm bones due to a fall. During a fall, the body’s natural instinct is to reduce the impact of hitting the ground by reaching out to break the fall. Unfortunately, this motion places a great deal of downward force on the bones of the arm: the humerus in the upper arm, and the radius and ulna in the lower arm—the forearm.
Fracture of the humerus is less common than a forearm fracture. Upper arm fractures more often occur due to significant trauma from a high energy auto collision or other great force hitting the bone from the side. A broken ulna can occur without also breaking the radius, and vice versa, but it’s not uncommon for children to experience a fracture involving both bones of the lower arm. A broken arm can also involve the elbow and wrist joints.
Symptoms of a broken arm include severe pain and occasionally a visible deformity of the limb. Broken arm treatment can range from just a cast to surgery, depending on the severity and type of break. Doctors classify arm fractures as stable, displaced, comminuted or compound:
If the ends of the broken bones are still very close to each other, the fracture is stable.
If the bones are out of place or misaligned, the fracture is displaced.
If there are three or more pieces of shattered bones, the fracture is comminuted.
If there is a wound and bone is breaking through skin, the fracture is compound.
You should always seek medical attention right away for a suspected broken bone. Prompt diagnosis and treatment can help you avoid consequences like infection or losing the use of the limb. A physical exam and X-rays help determine the seriousness and exact location of the fracture and help guide treatment decisions.
If you are unable to access professional medical care with help from a friend or family member, call 911 for immediate help.
What are the symptoms of a broken arm?
In general, the symptoms of a mild (hairline) fracture will be subtler than those of a displaced or more complex break.
The most common broken arm symptoms are:
Inability to move the limb. You may be still be able to wiggle your fingers.
Pain ranging from mild (for a hairline fracture) to severe (for a displaced or open fracture)
Reduced range of motion, such as inability to bend the arm at the elbow or rotate the arm at the shoulder
Visible deformity of the arm, either an abnormal bend or shortening of the limb, or bones extending through the skin
While a broken arm is not itself life threatening, any broken bone can become infected if not treated promptly. If you suspect a fracture, seek urgent medical care. It is better to have it checked and find out the arm isn’t broken than to delay diagnosis and treatment.
In some cases, an arm fracture can affect blood vessels and other internal structures. Seek immediate medical attention (call 911) if there is visible bleeding, significant trauma, or signs of shock.
What causes a broken arm?
There are many possible ways to break your arm, but the root cause is force. Falling from a significant height carries enough force to break even the strongest bone. Upper body trauma, such as a car accident or sports injury, are other causes.
A broken arm that results from a motor vehicle accident likely will be accompanied by other injuries, possibly life-threatening ones. Never try to move a person who has experienced great bodily trauma. Call 911 for emergency help and provide comfort to the injured person while waiting.
What are the risk factors for a broken arm?
Not all people with risk factors will break their arm. Risk factors for a broken arm include:
Age between 5 and 14 or older than 65 years
Inadequate home fall prevention, such as cluttered living environments with many trip hazards
Occupations with increased exposure to falls from a great height
Osteoporosis or another medical condition or medication that negatively affects bone density
Participating in sports that involve falling, such as ice skating, or direct blows to the body
Reducing your risk of a broken arm
You may be able to lower your risk by:
Avoiding occupations or sports activities that expose you to falling. Alternatively, take all necessary precautions to avoid trauma if your job, sport or activity is risky.
Exercising regularly to strengthen bones
Performing a fall risk inventory of your home annually
Taking calcium or vitamin D supplements for bone health if directed by your physician
Wearing protective equipment like elbow pads when participating in sports with a high fall risk
If you have multiple risk factors for a broken arm, speak with your doctor about how to reduce your risks. A broken arm can be debilitating, especially for frail, disabled or elderly people.
How is a broken arm treated?
The goal of broken arm treatment is to re-align the ends of the bones and allow them to grow back together with minimal complications or deformity. Your treatment options will depend upon your age and the severity of the break. A child’s arm bones often will repair themselves remarkably well without surgery (due to the normal growth process), while an adult may require immediate surgery to stabilize the break.
The most common treatment options for a broken arm are:
Arm cast, particularly for nondisplaced fractures of a single bone in the lower arm. In the emergency room or urgent care setting, the doctor performs a manual reduction, which involves gently bringing the end of the bones together without surgery.
Comfort measures including rest, ice and elevation to reduce swelling in the limb
Medications for pain or to reduce your risk of infection
Splint for minor lower arm fractures that don’t require a full cast
Surgery to repair multiple fractures in one or several arm bones or to treat open fractures
The three main types of broken arm surgery are:
Internal fixation with placement of plates and screws to hold the bones together while they heal
Internal fixation with placement of a rod through the central canal of the bone to provide stability during the healing process
External fixation with pins inserted through the skin into the bones and attached to an external frame to provide stability during healing
What are the potential complications of a broken arm?
Although a broken arm is a common injury, it also can be a serious one. Prior to treatment, the broken bones can shift and damage soft tissue structures around them.
Some of the most common complications of a broken arm or the surgery to treat it are:
Compartment syndrome, a post-fracture complication in which excessive bleeding or swelling cut off the arm’s blood supply leading to tissue death resulting in the need for amputation
Damage to surrounding blood vessels and nerves leading to permanent nerve damage
Infection of the bone if it pushes through the skin, or from postoperative infection
Poor bone healing or non-union in which the bones fail to reconnect after surgery