A distal radius fracture almost always occurs about 1 inch from the end of the bone. The break can occur in many different ways, however.
One of the most common distal radius fractures is a Colles fracture, in which the broken fragment of the radius tilts upward. This fracture was first described in 1814 by an Irish surgeon and anatomist, Abraham Colles — hence the name “Colles” fracture.
Other ways the distal radius can break include:
- Intra-articular fracture. A fracture that extends into the wrist joint. (“Articular” means “joint.”)
- Extra-articular fracture. A fracture that does not extend into the joint is called an extra-articular fracture.
- Open fracture. When a fractured bone breaks the skin, it is called an open fracture. These types of fractures require immediate medical attention because of the risk for infection.
- Comminuted fracture. When a bone is broken into more than two pieces, it is called a comminuted fracture.
It is important to classify the type of fracture, because some fractures are more difficult to treat than others. Intra-articular fractures, open fractures, comminuted fractures, and displaced fractures (when the broken pieces of bone do not line up straight).are more difficult to treat, for example.
Sometimes, the other bone of the forearm (the ulna) is also broken. This is called a distal ulna fracture.
Reproduced with permission from JF Sarwark, ed: Essentials of Musculoskeletal Care, ed 4. Rosemont, IL, American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, 2010.
The most common cause of a distal radius fracture is a fall onto an outstretched arm.
Osteoporosis (a disorder in which bones become very fragile and more likely to break) can make a relatively minor fall result in a broken wrist. Many distal radius fractures in people older than 60 years of age are caused by a fall from a standing position.
A broken wrist can happen even in healthy bones, if the force of the trauma is severe enough. For example, a car accident or a fall off a bike may generate enough force to break a wrist.
Good bone health remains an important prevention option. Wrist guards may help to prevent some fractures, but they will not prevent them all.
A broken wrist usually causes immediate pain, tenderness, bruising, and swelling. In many cases, the wrist hangs in an odd or bent way (deformity).
If the injury is not very painful and the wrist is not deformed, it may be possible to wait until the next day to see a doctor. The wrist may be protected with a splint. An ice pack can be applied to the wrist and the wrist can be elevated until a doctor is able to examine it.
If the injury is very painful, if the wrist is deformed or numb, or the fingers are not pink, it is necessary to go to the emergency room.
To confirm the diagnosis, the doctor will order x-rays of the wrist. 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 (a gap between broken bones). They can also show how many pieces of broken bone there are.
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.
There are many treatment options for a distal radius fracture. The choice depends on many factors, such as the nature of the fracture, your age and activity level, and the surgeon’s personal preferences.
If the broken bone is in a good position, a plaster cast may be applied until the bone heals.
If the position (alignment) of your bone is out of place and likely to limit the future use of your arm, it may be necessary to re-align the broken bone fragments. “Reduction” is the technical term for this process in which the doctor moves the broken pieces into place. When a bone is straightened without having to open the skin (incision), it is called a closed reduction.
After the bone is properly aligned, a splint or cast may be placed on your arm. A splint is usually used for the first few days to allow for a small amount of normal swelling. A cast is usually added a few days to a week or so later, after the swelling goes down. The cast is changed 2 or 3 weeks later as the swelling goes down more, causing the cast to loosen.
Depending on the nature of the fracture, your doctor may closely monitor the healing by taking regular x-rays. . If the fracture was reduced or thought to be unstable, x-rays may be taken at weekly intervals for 3 weeks and then at 6 weeks. X-rays may be taken less often if the fracture was not reduced and thought to be stable.
The cast is removed about 6 weeks after the fracture happened. At that point, physical therapy is often started to help improve the motion and function of the injured wrist.
Sometimes, the position of the bone is so much out of place that it cannot be corrected or kept corrected in a cast. This has the potential of interfering with the future functioning of your arm. In this case, surgery may be required.
Procedure. Surgery typically involves making an incision to directly access the broken bones to improve alignment (open reduction).
Depending on the fracture, there are a number of options for holding the bone in the correct position while it heals:
- Metal pins (usually stainless steel or titanium)
- Plate and screws
- External fixator (a a stabilizing frame outside the body that holds the bones in the proper position so they can heal)
- Any combination of these techniques
Open fractures. Surgery is required as soon as possible (within 8 hours after injury) in all open fractures. The exposed soft tissue and bone must be thoroughly cleaned (debrided) and antibiotics may be given to prevent infection. Either external or internal fixation methods will be used to hold the bones in place. If the soft tissues around the fracture are badly damaged, your doctor may apply a temporary external fixator. Internal fixation with plates or screws may be utilized at a second procedure several days later.