Broken arm

Diagnosis of a broken arm

Diagnosing a broken bone is typically a simple process based on imaging scans such as x-rays.  

Your doctor will assess your injury to get a better sense of your specific break, including the type of break, its location, and other features that can influence treatment.  

He or she will conduct a physical exam, which will include an evaluation of your medical history and how the injury took place. Your doctor will also assess your range of motion, sensation in your fingers, grip strength, and visual signs of injury such as deformity, bruising, and swelling.  

The next step is to order an x-ray. In rare cases, such as if your break does not appear in an initial x-ray or to rule out soft-tissue injuries like tendon tears, additional tests such as an MRI or CT scan may be needed. 

Treatment

The first step in treatment is to set the bone or realign it if it is out of place. This is called reducing the fracture, or reduction. Then the doctor will immobilize the bone with a cast to allow it to heal. This will protect your arm from re-injury, keep the bones in position as they heal, and prevent you from moving and causing further pain.   

At home, you may also use over-the-counter pain relievers such as NSAIDs to manage any discomfort from the broken bone.  

If you’ve had an open fracture or complex injury, Dignity Health offers surgery to repair broken bones. Your care team will put your bones back into alignment and will use pins, screws, or wire to help keep them in place. 

Recovery

At Dignity Health, treatment and prevention of a broken arm focus on healing the bone and avoiding future injuries. 

Most broken arms heal within four to six weeks. If your case requires surgery, you may need more time to heal.  

When the cast comes off, your doctor may recommend physical therapy or rehabilitation exercises. Completing this therapy will help you regain arm strength, function, and range of motion. You may be able to do exercises at home or work with a physical therapist to increase strength and minimize stiffness and swelling.  

Dignity Health offers complete care and treatment for broken arms as part of our orthopedic services. 

When to see a doctor for an arm injury

While open fractures or visible deformities can make broken bones noticeable, sometimes fractures are more subtle. If you have experienced a fall or other injury to your arm, it can be tempting to wait it out before seeking care, especially if you aren’t sure whether your arm is broken.  

If you think you may have broken your arm, it is vital to be seen by a medical professional.  

Delaying diagnosis and treatment can delay healing. This can lead to deformity and decreased range of motion, which may increase your recovery time and lead to long-term issues. 

If you have significant pain that persists over time, is accompanied by visual signs like bruising, and does not respond to over-the-counter medication, you should seek medical care. Broken bones often result in “point tenderness,” which is when you have a specific location in your arm that is painful and causes increased pain when touched.  

Also, if you notice deformity, swelling, or a limited range of motion, you should contact your doctor or head to urgent care as soon as possible for a prompt diagnosis.   

If you experience any of the following, seek emergency care right away: 

  • Numbness or tingling in your fingers  
  • Bleeding from an open wound or visible bone 
  • Complete lack of range of motion (not being able to move your hand or arm at all) 
  • An obvious deformity  
  • Loss of consciousness

The information contained in this article is meant for educational purposes only and should not replace advice from your healthcare provider.