How Long Does It Take to Recover and Heal From a Broken Wrist?
The reason I wrote this article is that I broke both my wrists in a terrible accident in 2007 and found very little information online about injuries like mine. I decided to write about what happened to me, in order to help other people in my situation. I hope you find this useful.
Below you'll be able to read more about my story, but first, some information on the healing time of wrist fractures.
Broken Wrist Recovery Time
Time for bone to fully mend
3 - 10 weeks, depending on severity of fracture
8 weeks or longer
Length of time in cast
For a half-cast, 3 - 4 weeks; for a full cast, 6 - 10 weeks
6 - 8 weeks, depending on fracture
Stiffness and immobility after removal
Joint will be stiff 2 - 3 weeks after cast is removed
Depending on the case, pain and stiffness will persist for several months and possibly years
Usually not needed
Likely needed, depending on the fracture
How Long Will Healing Take?
If you're reading this article, you probably want to know how long it takes for a broken wrist to heal.
Generally, recovery for adults takes about six to eight weeks (shorter for children and longer for the elderly or for more severe fractures).1 Everyone's situation is different. My recovery took longer than most (obviously) due to the severity of my injury (you can read about my story down below).
Recovery can mean different things, however. Though the bones may be healed at eight weeks, full recovery could be a much longer and difficult process, especially for adults and older adults. You should expect (depending on the severity of your injury), a huge reduction in mobility and a lot of stiffness. You will have to work hard in order to regain all of the use of your hand and wrist, but don't give up! It will be worth it. See the comments section to learn about other peoples' experiences and ask your own questions.
Here are some more details:
- The plaster cast will stay on until the bone has healed, but the exact length of healing time depends on the type of fracture, whether it has damaged the surrounding tissues, and the age of the patient.
- A young child who broke his or her wrist may need to wear a cast or removable splint for just two to three weeks. For older people or more complicated fractures, a wrist injury can take a lot longer to get back to normal and stiffness is extremely common.
- Be sure to follow instructions on how to take care of your cast. Most importantly, don’t get it wet. The orthopaedic doctors will decide when you can take the cast off and when you can return to normal activities or work.
- Your arm is often stiff and weak after being in a cast. Physiotherapy can be useful to help build up strength in the arm muscles and restore full movement, as in my case. However, this is rarely needed for children (guess I’m not a kid anymore!)
- There’s a higher chance of re-breaking or cracking the bone once the plaster is removed, especially in children, so kids should avoid trampolines, bouncy castles, soft play areas, and contact sports for a further four to six weeks to be safe.2
- Also, you shouldn’t drive in a cast. Talk to your doctor about when you can drive again.3
When I Can Resume Normal Activities?
Everyone wants to know when and if they can return to their former activities after suffering from a broken wrist. This is a great question which seems simple but actually has a complex answer.
Most patients do return to all of their former activities, but what happens in your case depends on the nature of your injury, the kind of treatment you and your doctors decide on, and how your body responds to the treatment.
You’ll need to discuss your case with your doctor for specifics, but in general most of the following are true:4
- Most patients have their cast taken off within six to eight weeks.
- If recommended by the doctor, patients will start physiotherapy within a few days or weeks after surgery, or right after the last cast is taken off.
- Most patients will be able to resume light activities such as swimming or working out the lower body within a month or two after the cast is taken off, or after surgery.
- Most patients can resume vigorous physical activities, such as skiing or football, between three and six months after the injury.
- Almost all patients will have some stiffness in their wrist, which will generally diminish in the month or two after the cast is taken off or after surgery. Wrist flexibility will continue to improve for at least two years (this is for adults).
- You should expect your recovery to take at least a year, and most will still feel some pain during vigorous activities for about that long. You should also expect residual stiffness or aches for two years or possibly permanently, especially for high impact injuries (such as motorcycle crashes), or if you are over 50 or have some osteoarthritis.
- The good news is that the stiffness is usually minor and may not affect the overall function of the arm. Remember that these are general guidelines and may not apply to you and your fracture. Ask your doctor for specifics in your case.
Timeline of Surgeries and Recovery After I Broke My Wrists
How My Wrists Felt
Day of the accident
Emergency surgery: Doctors fixed both wrists with titanium plates and screws and put an external fixation on right wrist that was attached to both the radius and forefinger metacarpal bones by four screws, two in each bone
Due to morphine, I have no memory of pain during the first week. It was only after returning to Portugal (and having the morphine stopped) that the pain showed up, and what a show it was :/. I had to take some painkillers like algimate and tramadol but soon realized they had serious side effects and haven't taken any chemical drugs since.
Two months after accident
External fixation was removed and I started daily physiotherapy. Started to see good results with physiotherapy
For me, physiotherapy was the most painful part of the process. But every session I knew what was going to happen, and I went anyway. You can call me masochist but I learned to love and embrace the pain resulting from all the hard work.
Two months and one week after accident
Got a spike removed because it was starting to poke through skin
I'm not sure if what I felt when they took the metal pin out was really pain. Perhaps I can call it mental pain because it felt strange to watch the guy pulling a metal spike from my skin like a mechanic working on some vehicle. It was just a strange feeling.
Seven months after accident
Surgery to remove titanium plates from both wrists and get a new one on my right wrist to keep it from moving incorrectly; cut distal end from right cubitus bone to allow wrist to rotate
It's not easy to explain what went through my head during this time — perhaps only those who have gone through it can understand. There are too many things to even start counting.
Two years and three months after accident
Surgery to add two titanium plates to left wrist to correct left hand's position, did not improve mobility
At this time I was much more adapted to my new reality and my thoughts about it were much more positive forward-looking. My pain was also under control.
Four years after accident
Able to read, write, and ride my bike almost like I could before the accident
What can I say!? I guess I was and am a good patient. I tried to study myself like I never did before and I now know and understand myself much better.
My Experience With Broken Wrists and Surgery
In July 2007, I was on a mountain biking trip in the French Alps and fell from the balcony of the second floor of a building. Unfortunately it wasn’t as exciting as a bike crash, and no, I didn't try to kill myself (in case you were wondering).
After I fell, I had to get up all by myself and go upstairs to go back to the second floor where my friends were. I still don’t know where I found the strength to search for my friends and get their help. I guess my love for life certainly helped!
When I finally reached my friends, they called the paramedics and I was taken to the hospital right away. Well . . . almost right away. We actually had to stop twice to get some money from an ATM since the ambulance would only take me to the hospital after I paid for the service.
Due to the severity of the fractures, I had to be operated on as soon as I got to the hospital.
During this surgery (the first of three), doctors fixed both my wrists with titanium plates and screws, and they also put an external fixation on my right wrist. This external equipment was attached to both the radius and forefinger metacarpal bones by four screws, two in each bone.
Back in Portugal (where I’m from), the external fixation was removed two months after the operation. They took it out without any anesthesia which made it an unforgettable moment for me (as in it was extremely painful).
At this point, I started daily physiotherapy sessions and immediately began to see good results.
One week later, I went to hospital again. This time it was to have a little spike that the doctor had put in removed because it was starting to push through my skin. I also had no anesthetic this time and it was pretty painful, but by now I was learning how to enjoy it.
X-rays After the First Surgery
That which does not kill us makes us stronger.— Friedrich Nietzsche
Almost seven months after the accident, I had to be operated on yet again to remove the titanium plates from both wrists and get a new one on my right wrist to keep it from moving incorrectly. In order to allow the right hand to rotate, they also cut the distal end from my right cubitus bone. This was my third surgery. Not fun!
Even though I was much better, I still needed at least one more operation to have my left wrist put back in place. That surgery, unfortunately, could only happen when I got some significant time off work.
Yes, that’s right—I’d be spending my next vacation in the hospital.
In October 2009, I went through that surgery, which I hoped to be my last, and my surgeon believed that my left wrist would be able to regain its mobility after correcting its position.
This time I only had local anesthesia which allowed a much faster recovery, and I started moving my fingers by the end of the day. It also allowed me to watch the entire process without any pain. However, it did take more than two hours and I almost fell asleep during the surgery . . .
The operation team decided to add two titanium plates to my wrist and put it back into its natural position. This by itself made a big difference and I could finally grab my bicycle's handlebars.
The bad news is that it did not improve my wrist mobility, but I had been expecting this. In the last appointment before the surgery, I even suggested to my doctor that he completely secure my wrist like he’d done with my right one, but he told me there was a chance of improvement with the left one.
Unfortunately, I still don´t have good quality digitalizations of the X-rays because they never gave me the original ones. The pictures below were digitized from a paper copy, so I apologize for the poor quality.
Four years after the accident, I can work, write, ride my bike, and do normal, everyday tasks.
If I’m being completely honest, however, I can’t do everything I did before. On the other hand, now that I’ve had to re-learn some things, I do them even better.
X-ray From Right Wrist After the Last Surgery
After breaking my wrist, I searched for help and information online from people who’d had similar experiences but found very few people sharing their broken wrist stories.
I hope this article helps other people going through the same kind of injury. Writing it down and sharing it with everybody certainly helped me debrief the experience.
I hope this helped you as you're recovering from a broken wrist. It does get better. Feel free to leave some of your experiences and advice in the comments section.
More Information on Wrist Fractures
The wrist is one of the most commonly broken bones — in the United States, one out of every ten bones is a broken wrist.4
Seventy-five percent of wrist injuries are fractures of the distal radius and ulna. Distal means the end of the bone closest to the wrist. The eight carpal bones (the bones between the arm bone and the hand) are injured less frequently.
In general, there are four main kinds of fractures which are:5
- Simple or closed fractures: an easily treated break with little damage to the surrounding tissue.
- Compound or open fractures: a complicated break that also damages the surrounding skin.
- Comminuted: a comminuted fracture means the bone has broken into several pieces. Note: This is the kind of fracture that I had.
- Greenstick: this type is usually most common in children. Greenstick is a type of fracture where the bone is bent but not broken.
Hairline fractures are minor cracks to the bone and only show up on an X-ray. An impacted fracture is when the ends of bones are driven into one another.
Wrist fractures are most common in children and young adults, especially if they're involved in risk-taking activities. They also become common as people get older, when we are more likely to fall or suffer from osteoporosis, which increases the likelihood of breaking a bone.
It’s also true that this kind of fracture can sometimes save lives. If I had landed in any other way when I fell, I probably would have broken my neck. In some ways, my wrists were the parachute that softened the fall, though at a fairly big cost!
Usually you know if you've broken your arm or wrist bone because it will be extremely painful.1
If it's a clean break, you may have heard a snap or a grinding noise during the accident. The bone can break in several different ways, including straight across, diagonally, or in a spiral pattern. In severe cases, the bone may break into many pieces (comminuted), stick out at an angle, or poke through the skin (open or compound fracture).
Some things to look for if you think you may have broken your wrist are:
- Swelling or tenderness around the injured area
- Bleeding if the bone has damaged the tissue and skin
- Pain, especially when flexing the wrist
- Your wrist looks bent or crooked
- Your wrist, arm, or hand is numb
- Your fingers are pale
Presence of these symptoms is not a guarantee that there’s a fracture. A sprained wrist can feel similarly and an X-ray is the only way to find out what happened.
If you’ve suffered an injury to your arm or wrist that has lasting pain, you should go to a doctor to have X-rays taken. It might only be a sprain, but it’s better to be safe than to risk more injury.
What to Do
If you or someone in your care has broken their wrist, here are some guidelines to follow:6
- Don't eat or drink anything if you think you've broken your wrist, as you may need a general anaesthetic (be put to sleep) to allow doctors to realign the bone. This process can be very painful to do so while you're awake.
- A sling will help stabilise the arm while you're on the way to the hospital. The sling should go under the arm and then around the neck. Don’t try to straighten your wrist.
- Apply an ice pack to the injured area (try a bag of frozen peas wrapped in a tea towel). Ice can help reduce pain and swelling.
- If the injury is to a child, try to find someone to drive and someone else to support and comfort the child.
What to Expect From Treatment
A broken arm or wrist treatment differs depending on how bad the injury is. Here's what will happen as you go through the process:6
- A doctor will give you painkillers and then fix a splint to the arm to secure it in position and prevent further damage.
- An X-ray will be taken of the arm to see what kind of fracture it is. Even hairline fractures should show faintly on X-ray.
- A simple fracture where the bone remains aligned can be treated by applying a plaster cast. This holds the broken ends together so they can heal. You should be provided with painkillers to take home and information on how to look after your cast, and you’ll probably make an appointment to attend a fracture clinic so specialist orthopaedic doctors can take over the care of your fracture.
- With more severe arm or wrist fractures, the bones can become misaligned (displaced). If the bone is not realigned (reduced), the bones will not heal well. Doctors can use a technique called 'closed reduction' to pull the bones back into position.
- Local or regional anesthetic will be used to numb the arm (this is rarely used in children), or you will be put to sleep using a general anaesthetic. If doctors are happy with the bones' new position, you may be treated with a plaster cast and regular follow-up appointments and X-rays.
- Certain fractures are best treated with surgery to realign and fix the broken bones (as in my case because it was so severe). This includes displaced fractures, fractures involving a joint, and open fractures. Surgeons can fix bones with wires, plates, screws, or rods. This is called open reduction and internal fixation (ORIF). Any metalwork is usually not removed unless it becomes a problem.
- In rare cases (like mine) an external frame is used to hold the broken bones, known as an external fixator.
- After most surgeries, a plaster cast is applied to protect the wrist. A sling may also be provided for comfort. If you have surgery, you will usually be able to go home within a day or two. You might need a second cast if the first one gets too loose after the swelling goes away.
- You'll likely get regular X-rays to make sure your wrist is healing normally
Helping a Broken Wrist Heal
Though only time will let your bone heal fully, there are some things you can do to help ease the pain and decrease healing time.1, 6
- Elevate your wrist above the level of your heart by putting it on a pillow or on some other surface for the first few days to help ease pain and swelling.
- Ice your wrist for 15-20 minutes about two or three times a day for two to three days. Make sure you keep your cast or splint dry.
- Take OTC painkillers. Ask your doctor about the ones that are the safest for you to take — some of them have side effects with overuse.
- Ask your doctor about stretching or strengthening exercises for your hands.
- Avoid putting weight or strain on your arm — you don't have to stop moving it completely, but you should avoid carrying heavy things and driving.
- If you notice anything unusual about your wrist — strange sensations, odd hand color, signs of infection, problems with your cast, numbness in your fingers, or severe or continuous pain, you should speak with your doctor.
I wish you a speedy recovery!
- Reviewed by Carol DerSarkissian. "Colles' Fracture (Distal Radius Fracture or Broken Wrist)" January 26, 2017. WebMD. Accessed May 29, 2017.
- Grewal, Preeti RN, MN, APN and William Cole MBBS, MSc, PhD, FRACS, FRCSC. "Wrist Fracture." November 10, 2009. Accessed May 29, 2017.
- Hoffman, Jan. "When Is It Safe to Drive After Breaking a Bone?" December 3, 2013. NYTimes Well Blog. Accessed May 29, 2017.
- "Distal Radius Fractures (Broken Wrist)" March 2013. American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons. Accessed May 29, 2017.
- "Fractures (Broken Bones)" October 2012. American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons. Accessed May 29, 2017.
- "Broken Arm or Wrist." January 25, 2017. National Health Service UK. Accessed May 29, 2017.