How to tell if your wrist is broken

A broken or sprained wrist is an incredibly common injury. When we fall or trip, the first thing we do is put our hand out to stop the fall. This is a common cause of a sprained or broken wrist. Your wrist can also be injured when you twist or hit it. 

But when your wrist hurts, it can be hard to tell how serious the injury is. Simply based on your pain level or symptoms, it is not possible to know if it is a sprain or break.

While a sprain or a break can feel similar and require some of the same treatments, a wrist sprain happens when ligaments — the fibrous bands that connect the bones — are damaged. A break means that the bones in the wrist have broken or shattered. There are eight bones around the wrist that can fracture or break.

Signs that may indicate your wrist is broken

1. Extreme pain

One of the first signs of a broken wrist is that it typically hurts more than a sprain. Sometimes a sprain will feel tender, whereas a break may make it difficult to move your wrist without severe pain. The pain from a sprain will typically resolve sooner than a break.

2. Severe swelling of the wrist

A break tends to cause more inflammation, which can result in severe swelling. If you have a broken wrist, you likely won’t be able to move your wrist much at all.

3. Limited wrist mobility

If your wrist is broken, you may lose significant mobility. Inflammation paired with cracked or fractured bones can prevent the wrist from moving. With a sprain, you typically can still move your wrist, even if it hurts.

4. Appears bruised

A broken wrist may appear bruised. However, a sprain may also result in some bruising, so it’s best to consult a healthcare professional for a precise diagnosis.

How broken wrists are diagnosed

Since it can be hard to know if your wrist is broken or sprained, it is important to see a healthcare provider immediately. Getting early treatment will help ensure the wrist heals properly and minimize pain. 

When you visit one of our urgent care partners or another healthcare provider for an injured wrist, you will typically need a physical exam and X-ray. Depending on the severity of the injury, the provider may require additional testing or scans. 

If the injury is severe, you may require a visit to a doctor specializing in broken or fractured bones for further assessment.

Treatment usually involves immobilization of the wrist with a splint or cast until the bone heals. Sometimes a broken wrist may require surgery to heal properly. The provider may also recommend pain medication, anti-inflammatories or antibiotics, depending on the type of injury you experienced. They may also recommend seeing a physical therapist to improve mobility once the bone has healed. 

What to do if you think your wrist is broken

If you have a wrist injury and are unsure if it is broken, put ice on your wrist and keep it as immobile as possible until you can get care. Try to see a healthcare provider as soon as possible to prevent any long-term complications from the injury.

When you see your provider, you may want to ask a few specific questions to understand their plan. These could include:

  • Is my wrist broken or sprained?
  • What is the recommended treatment?
  • Do I need to see a specialist?
  • Do I need to take any medication?
  • Might I need surgery? 
  • How long can I expect to use this cast or sling?
  • What restrictions do I have?
  • What other recommendations do you have for healing properly?

Without proper treatment, a broken wrist can lead to ongoing pain, lack of mobility or even disability. Fractures can also lead to arthritis years later due to inflammation, so it is best to get treatment immediately. 

If you need help assessing and treating a broken wrist, visit our locations page and to find a local provider from one of our health system partners at a center near you. You can walk in without an appointment, or you can check in online. Our urgent care partners are open 365 days a year with extended hours to help you get the diagnosis and treatment for wrist and other injuries. We’ll have you back to feeling better in no time.