Wrist Sprains vs Fractures: How to Tell the Difference
Breaks & Fractures
May 19, 2020
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When you’re injured, pain can be unbearable. The discomfort could cause even simple tasks — such as walking or brushing your teeth — to require monumental efforts. You may wonder if it will get better if you just wait it out. But, what if it’s something more serious, such as a sprain or a fracture? What are the symptoms of each? And, how can you best treat them?
What is a wrist sprain?
Ligaments are bands of elastic tissue that connect bones together at the joints. They provide stability and limit joint movement. When you sprain your wrist, these ligaments stretch beyond their limit — on some occasions, they may even tear. The sprain could range from mild to severe, depending on the location and intensity of the injury. In fact, there are three different types of wrist sprains:
- Grade 1 wrist sprains: These are injuries where the sprain only caused the ligaments to stretch. There’s pain, but you can still move your joint.
- Grade 2 wrist sprains: When this type of injury occurs, the ligaments are partially torn — which causes a diminished function of the joint.
- Grade 3 wrist sprains: This is when the ligament is completely torn or detached from the bone. When this occurs, you’ll need surgical intervention to fix it.
Symptoms of a Wrist Sprain
Symptoms of a wrist sprain will vary, depending on which type of sprain you’ve experienced. However, you’ll notice:
- A popping sensation inside the wrist
- The skin feels warm to the touch
Treating a Wrist Sprain
If the sprain is mild, you can treat it with the RICE method: rest, ice, compression, and elevation. Take some downtime and avoid using the injured wrist for a couple of days. When applying ice, do so for 20 minutes at a time. Make sure to cover the ice with a cloth or towel. Placing the ice directly on the skin could cause ice burns.
If the sprain is moderate, seek medical care for closer inspection. You’ll have to immobilize the wrist with a splint for a minimum of a week. Your doctor may also recommend stretching exercises to avoid stiffness.
If the sprain is severe, your doctor will take x-rays to determine the extent of the damage then schedule surgery to reconnect the ligament to the bone. After surgery, you’ll need to do physical therapy to restore the range of motion to your wrist.
What is a wrist fracture?
A fracture is when there’s a crack or break in the bone. It could be a hairline fracture or any type of break — including when bone pierces the skin. They could occur in one or several of the small bones in the wrist, and they often happen when a person extends their hands to break a fall, or while playing contact sports.
It’s crucial to obtain medical care if you’ve suffered a fracture. Failing to do so could lead to complications — such as the bones not healing in proper alignment. As a result, you may end up with a diminished range of motion and/or chronic stiffness. You may also end up with post-traumatic osteoarthritis.
Symptoms of a Wrist Fracture
The severity of your symptoms can vary on the location of your fracture. If you’ve fractured your wrist, you’ll experience the following symptoms:
- Intense pain that gets worse when attempting to move your wrist
- Diminished range of motion or inability to move your wrist
- Significant swelling
- Depending on the severity of the fracture, your wrist may look deformed
Treating a Wrist Fracture
Treating the fracture involves immobilizing it with a cast. Restricting movement is essential to ensure it heals properly. Your doctor will also recommend keeping the wrist at chest level as often as possible, as this reduces pain and swelling. Your medical provider may also recommend over-the-counter medications to relieve pain.
If the fracture was severe, your doctor will need to manually manipulate your wrist to realign the wrist bones. It may be necessary to apply local anesthesia prior to undergoing this procedure. Your doctor may also prescribe opioids to help you manage the pain as you heal. In a worst-case scenario, you may need surgery. This is only necessary if there are loose bone fragments, damage to surrounding tissue, or you need screws to restore functionality to the wrist. If you do need surgery, you’ll also need physical therapy as part of the healing process.
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