A broken arm is a break or crack in one or more bones in the arm. It may be painful, and the arm may swell. People should seek medical advice as soon as possible.

A person may break their arm as a consequence of trauma. Other underlying, age-related health conditions, such as osteoporosis, may increase the risk of breaking an arm.

Symptoms of a fractured arm may include arm or hand numbness, bleeding, and pain while attempting to move it.

This article details the symptoms and causes of a broken arm, how to treat it, and when a person should consult a doctor.

A person signing the cast of another person with a broken arm.Share on Pinterest

A broken arm occurs due to a break or crack in one or more bones. Possible areas in the arm that are susceptible to breakages are:

  • the forearm bones — radius and ulna
  • wrist
  • elbow
  • humerus
  • shoulder

Arm fracture is another term to describe a broken arm. A simple arm fracture may require a splint or a cast. However, more complex fractures may need surgery.

If treated properly, a broken arm can heal completely.

Learn more about fractures.

The symptoms of a broken arm may vary depending on the severity and the number of bones involved.

An arm fracture may be evident if the arm is crooked or the bone sticks through the skin, called an open fracture.

Broken arm symptoms may include:

If a person suspects a broken arm, they should contact a healthcare professional for medical care.

Trauma is the most common cause of arm fractures. Broken arms can be caused by:

  • falling on an outstretched arm
  • motor vehicle accidents
  • sports injuries

Underlying bone conditions can put a person at a higher risk of bone fractures. People with osteoporosis, a disorder that weakens bones, are more likely to break their bones. This may be more frequent in older people.

Another cause of broken arms is overuse. Repetitive motion can tire muscles. This results in more force and stress placed on bones, called a stress fracture. Overuse is more common in athletes.

If a person thinks they have a broken arm, they should get medical advice as soon as possible. Bone injuries need treatment without delay.

It may not be clear if a person has a broken arm or a sprain. A healthcare professional can examine the injury and give the correct diagnosis and treatment.

The most common factors related to broken arms are trauma and athletic activity. Activities where a person risks falling from a height, tripping, or contact sports, such as skiing, cycling, rugby, or football, may be riskier.

Older people with weaker bones may be more at risk of a broken arm from trips or falls.

A 2020 study found that people who did not eat meat, in particular vegans, had a higher risk of breaking their bones. The findings suggest that bone health in vegans requires further research.

A healthcare professional will examine the injury and the overall health of the individual. They will look for signs or symptoms of a fracture. They may also ask how the injury occurred and for a medical history.

The doctor may also require one or more of the following imaging tests:

  • X-ray: This is the main tool for broken bone diagnosis. Doctors may also use this test to check how the broken arm is healing. It uses small amounts of radiation to produce an image of bones onto a film.
  • Bone scan: This is useful for detecting fractures that can be hard to spot on X-rays, such as stress and toddler fractures. It uses a radioactive substance to determine the cause of inflammation or pain that a person may be experiencing.
  • MRI: This combines radio frequencies, large magnets, and a computer to produce detailed images of structures and organs inside the body. MRIs are more sensitive than X-rays. MRIs can spot small fractures that sometimes X-rays cannot detect.
  • CT or CAT scan: This utilizes computer technology and X-rays. It produces cross-sectional images of the body both vertically and horizontally.

These tests help healthcare professionals diagnose fractures. They will also help them understand if there are any blood vessels or muscle damage.

After assessing the severity of the fracture, the healthcare professional will opt for the most appropriate treatment.

The most common treatments include:

  • Cast immobilization: Fiberglass or plaster cast is the most common type of broken arm treatment. Most broken arms can heal successfully after a doctor applies a cast to keep the bones involved in the proper position while they heal.
  • Functional cast or brace: This allows a controlled movement of the joints near the fracture. This type of treatment may not be compatible with all fractures.
  • Traction: This helps to align one or more bones with a gentle action. This is generally not a definitive treatment.
  • External fixation: The doctor will place metal screws and pins into the broken and below the fracture site. A metal bar outside the skin will connect screws and pins to hold the bones together while they heal. The doctor may opt for this procedure if the injured person cannot tolerate surgery as their skin and the soft tissues around the broken bone have severe damage.
  • Open reduction and internal fixation: The doctor will reposition the bone fragments into their natural location and alignment. They will then apply special screws, metal plates, and rods through the injured bone to hold its fragments in place.

Learn more about the different methods of bone fracture repair.

Recovery time depends on the location of the break and the severity of the injury. For example:

  • adult forearm fracture: 3–6 months
  • broken wrist: around 3 months to heal and up to 12 months for full recovery
  • elbow: around 4 months to heal, but can take over 12 months for full recovery

Fractures in children generally take less time to heal.

With nonsurgical treatment, rehabilitation begins 2 weeks after the cast removal. A physical therapist may suggest gentle exercises to help increase the motion of the arm. After this, they will suggest adding exercises aimed at strengthening the arm.

People may need to keep their arms still for 2–6 weeks after surgery. This depends on the complexity of the fracture. The doctor may apply a cast or a brace to help keep the arm still. After the surgery, a person usually begins motion exercises as soon as possible to prevent stiffness.

Learn more about how broken bones heal.

Self-care at home

People with a broken arm can assist their recovery at home by:

  • Keeping their hand raised above their elbow wherever possible: They can use a pillow to keep their arm raised while sleeping.
  • Practicing physical therapy: If advised to do so by a doctor or physical therapist, an individual can perform rehabilitation exercises for the arm at home.
  • Avoiding getting their cast wet or scratching underneath it: This can lead to infections.
  • Avoiding driving and lifting heavy items: A person should refrain from using a broken arm for strenuous activities until a doctor says it is safe to do so.

Breaking an arm may lead to complications arising from fractures or surgical procedures.

Complications related to a broken arm can include:

  • a cut or tear of the blood vessels or nerves due to the sharpness of the broken bone
  • excessive bleeding and swelling, which may lead to compartment syndrome — loss of sensation and function of the arm, hand, and fingers
  • wound infection
  • bone infection

Complications associated with the surgery may include:

  • infection
  • damage to blood vessels and nerves
  • synostosis — the fusion of the bones during healing
  • nonunion — the fractured bone fails to heal and mend
  • stiffness
  • pain due to the implants
  • screws, plates, or rods placed in the arm may shift or break

It can be difficult to prevent a broken arm as most events that lead to it are accidental.

Building up bone strength, avoiding falls, and wearing the right protective equipment during sports may help reduce the risk of injury.

Having sufficient calcium and vitamin D intake, avoiding smoking, and doing weight-bearing exercises may help prevent fractures.

Learn more about how to increase bone density and strength naturally.

The following are some common questions about broken arms.

How long does a broken arm take to heal?

This depends on how severe the injury is and the location of the fracture. For example, forearm bones typically take 3–6 months to heal from a break.

What does a broken arm feel like?

A broken arm may feel tender or painful, and a person may be unable to move it. They may also experience numbness, weakness, and swelling.

The recovery time for a broken arm varies, depending on how severe the injury is.

It may be necessary to wear a plaster cast until the bone heals. Sometimes, a person may need surgery to fix a broken arm.

After removing the cast, the arm may feel stiff and weak. The hospital can advise a person on exercises to speed up recovery and refer them to a physical therapist.

A broken arm may cause pain and swelling. If a person suspects a fracture, they should seek medical advice as soon as possible.

X-rays, CT scans, and MRIs can assess the severity of a broken arm injury. A doctor may apply a cast to hold the arm in the right position while healing. In the most severe cases, the doctor may perform surgery.

The average recovery time is between 3–6 months, but it may vary depending on the injury’s severity and location.