Sometimes it can be difficult to tell whether you’ve broken your arm or just sprained it. Symptoms of a broken or fractured bone in your arm may include:
- Difficulty moving the affected arm
- Pain and swelling at the fractured site
- Obvious deformity over the fractured site (a bulge or tenting)
- Tenderness or bruising over the fractured site
- Grinding sensation upon moving the arm
- Numbness or tingling over the arm (rare, occurs when there is a nerve injury)
- Pale or cold arm (rare, occurs when there is a blood vessel injury)
- Affected arm appears shorter than the uninjured arm (occurs when the fractured bones are overlapping one another)
- Parts of the fractured bone may be visible through the broken skin (if there is an open fracture)
- Numbness in the hand or wrist (if forearm is fractured)
Your doctor may diagnose the fracture based on your medical history (including history of injuries such as a car accident or a fall) and physical examination.
To locate the exact site of fracture and plan proper treatment, your doctor may also order imaging studies such as an X-ray. If you have a history of frequent fractures, your doctor may order other tests, such as a serum calcium, vitamin D, and bone scan, to diagnose any underlying health issues.
What are the causes of a broken arm?
A broken arm or arm fracture occurs when any bone in your upper or lower arm gets broken or cracked. In young children, the bone may get bent but not broken (also called greenstick fracture).
- The upper arm has a single bone called the humerus. The humerus is a long and slender bone extending from the shoulder to the elbow.
- The lower arm, called the forearm, has two bones called the radius (toward the side of the thumb) and ulna (on the inner side of the forearm or side of the little finger).
- Both bones extend from the elbow to the wrist. Because of the differences in structure and locations of these bones, fracture causes may also differ.
Upper arm fractures
Causes of fractured humerus (upper arm bone) include:
- Automobile accident
- High-impact fall on the upper arm
- Fall on an outstretched upper arm
- Severe twisting injury of the upper arm
- Sudden and extreme contraction of the upper arm muscles (called spiral or ball thrower’s fracture)
- Physical violence
In healthy individuals, upper arm fractures are usually caused by a high-impact injury or trauma. In individuals with underlying health conditions that weaken the bone, such as cancer or osteoporosis, the bone may break even with a minor impact or mild trauma (pathologic fracture).
Causes of fracture of the radius and ulna (forearm bones) include:
- Automobile accident
- Fall on an outstretched arm
- Contact sports such as ice skating, rugby, volleyball, skateboarding, and wrestling
- Physical violence
Fracture in the forearm may involve one or both bones. Just like fracture in the upper arm, a forearm bone fracture may occur in the absence of a significant injury in individuals with underlying health conditions (such as bone cancer or osteoporosis).
What are the complications of a broken arm?
Complications of a broken arm include:
- Bleeding (if the fractured bone pierces a blood vessel)
- Nerve injury (if the fractured bone damages a nerve)
- Malunion (if the fractured bone does not heal properly, resulting in a deformity)
- Osteoarthritis (if the fracture involves a joint)
- Infection (may be seen in an open fracture if a sharp portion of the fractured bone pierces the skin surface)
- Non-union (rare, occurs when the bone fragments fail to unite)
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Common Medical Abbreviations & Terms
Doctors, pharmacists, and other health-care professionals use abbreviations, acronyms, and other terminology for instructions and information in regard to a patient's health condition, prescription drugs they are to take, or medical procedures that have been ordered. There is no approved this list of common medical abbreviations, acronyms, and terminology used by doctors and other health- care professionals. You can use this list of medical abbreviations and acronyms written by our doctors the next time you can't understand what is on your prescription package, blood test results, or medical procedure orders. Examples include:
- ANED: Alive no evidence of disease. The patient arrived in the ER alive with no evidence of disease.
- ARF: Acute renal (kidney) failure
- cap: Capsule.
- CPAP: Continuous positive airway pressure. A treatment for sleep apnea.
- DJD: Degenerative joint disease. Another term for osteoarthritis.
- DM: Diabetes mellitus. Type 1 and type 2 diabetes
- HA: Headache
- IBD: Inflammatory bowel disease. A name for two disorders of the gastrointestinal (BI) tract, Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis
- JT: Joint
- N/V: Nausea or vomiting.
- p.o.: By mouth. From the Latin terminology per os.
- q.i.d.: Four times daily. As in taking a medicine four times daily.
- RA: Rheumatoid arthritis
- SOB: Shortness of breath.
- T: Temperature. Temperature is recorded as part of the physical examination. It is one of the "vital signs."
How Long Does an Ulnar Nerve Block Last?An ulnar nerve block is a procedure to numb the side of the hand with the little finger. An anesthetic solution is injected adjacent to the ulnar nerve in the wrist or the elbow. The anesthetic blocks the transmission of pain signals from an injured portion of the hand to the brain.
How Painful Is a Broken Humerus?Humerus fractures cause severe pain and swelling. On a scale of 10, pain in patients following a humerus fracture is eight or more. Shortening of the arm is apparent with significant deformity of the bones.
Stress Fracture PictureA fracture that occurs during the course of normal activity is called a minimal trauma fracture or stress fracture. See a picture of Stress Fracture and learn more about the health topic.
What Are the 4 Types of Fractures?What are the four types of bone fractures? Learn the signs of bone fractures and how doctors treat them.
What Do They Do for a Broken Humerus?A fractured humerus or upper arm is extremely painful, and the patient may not be able to move their arm. Sometimes, the radial nerve (one of the main nerves in the arm) may be injured.
What Is a Short Arm Splint?Short arm splints are short splints that immobilize joints of the hand and wrist or to protect bony and soft tissues in the forearm (between the elbow and wrist). They also extend between the thumb and pointer finger.
What Is a Sugar-Tong Forearm Splint?A sugar-tong forearm splint is a long U-shaped splint that immobilizes the injured forearm or wrist and prevents forearm rotation and wrist motion. They heal the fractured bones by keeping the broken ends together and in alignment.
What Is an Ulnar Gutter Splint Used For?An ulnar gutter splint is a flexible splint that is used to support, stabilize, and immobilize injuries, dislocations and fractures of the hands, fingers, or wrists to allow the bones and tissues to heal properly. An ulnar gutter splint can be used for various injuries in the hand including soft-tissue hand injuries to the pinky and ring fingers, fractures anywhere in the pinky and ring fingers, and positioning and healing of rheumatoid arthritis or osteoarthritis.
What Is Posterior Long Arm Splinting?Posterior long arm splint is used in the management of multiple upper long arm injuries. A splint is a type of medical equipment made of wood or other rigid material.