What is a broken arm?
A broken arm is a crack or break in one or more of the bones in arm. Broken arms, also known as arm fractures, are often caused by an impact injury, such as from a fall or collision.
A simple arm fracture is usually treated with a splint or cast, however, a complex fracture may require surgery. With proper treatment, broken arms can heal completely. Children typically regain full use of their arm within a couple weeks after their final cast is removed.
Learn more about different types of fractures in children.
What are the main bones in the arm?
There are three main bones in the arm:
- The humerus is the long bone in the upper arm. One end connects at the shoulder, and the other end connects with the radius and ulna at the elbow joint.
- The ulna runs from the tip of the elbow to the little finger side of the wrist.
- The radius is bigger and longer than the ulna, and it runs from the elbow to the wrist.
Broken Arm | Symptoms & Causes
What causes a broken arm?
Childhood broken arms can be caused by:
- Falls: Falling onto an outstretched hand is the most common cause of a broken arm.
- Sports injuries: Collisions with other players or falling during sports can cause a broken arm.
- Trauma: Direct trauma to the arm (for example, from a car or bike accident) can cause broken bones.
What are the symptoms of a broken arm?
Common signs of a broken arm include:
- pain or swelling
- warmth, bruising, or redness
- difficulty using or moving the arm normally
- a noticeable abnormality, such as an unusual bend in the arm or wrist
Broken Arm | Diagnosis & Treatments
How is a broken arm diagnosed?
The doctor will carefully examine your child’s arm looking for symptoms of a fracture. The doctor may also order one or more of the following imaging tests to help them see signs of a broken bone as well as damage to nearby muscles or blood vessels:
- X-ray: The main tool used for diagnosing a broken bone. This painless test uses small amounts of radiation to produce images of bones onto film. X-rays can also help determine whether the bones in the arm are healing in the proper position.
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI): A diagnostic procedure that uses a combination of large magnets, radio frequencies, and a computer to produce detailed images of organs and structures within the body. MRIs are more sensitive than x-rays and can pick up smaller fractures before they get worse.
- Computed tomography scan (CT, CAT scan): A diagnostic imaging procedure that uses a combination of x-rays and computer technology to produce cross-sectional images (often called slices), both horizontally and vertically, of the body.
- Bone scan: A painless imaging method that uses a radioactive substance to evaluate bones and determine the cause of pain or inflammation. Bone scans are also useful for detecting stress fractures and toddler’s fractures, which can be hard to see on x-rays.
How is a child’s broken arm treated?
Treatment for a broken arm depends on the specific location and severity of the break, your child's age, overall health, and medical history.
Non-surgical treatments for a broken arm
Casts and splints
Splints and casts immobilize injured bones to promote healing and reduce pain and swelling. They are sometimes put on after surgical procedures to ensure that the bone is protected and in the proper alignment as it heals.
Splints are used for minor breaks. Splints support the broken bone on one side and immobilize the arm to promote bone alignment during healing. Splints are often used in emergency situations to hold a joint in a steady position while a child is transported to a medical facility.
Casts are stronger than splints and provide more protection to the injured area. They hold a broken bone in place while it heals by immobilizing the area above and below the joint.
Some common types of casts for broken arms include:
- Short arm casts extend from the elbow to the hand and are used for forearm or wrist fractures or to hold the arm in place after surgery.
- Long arm casts extend from the upper arm to the hand and are used for upper arm, elbow, or forearm fractures. They are also used to hold the arm in place after surgery.
- Arm cylinder casts extend from the upper arm to the wrist and are used to hold the elbow muscle and tendons in place after a dislocation or surgery.
Traction and closed reduction
Traction corrects broken or dislocated bones by using a gentle and steady pulling motion to stretch muscles and tendons in a specific direction around the broken bone. This allows the bone ends to align and heal, and in some cases, it reduces painful muscle spasms.
Closed reduction is a nonsurgical procedure used to reduce and set the fracture. Using an anesthetic (typically given through an IV in the arm), the doctor realigns the bone fragments from outside the body and holds it in place with a cast or splint.
Surgical treatment for a broken arm
Surgery may be needed to put broken bones back into place. A surgeon may insert metal rods or pins located inside the bone (internal fixation) or outside the body (external fixation) to hold bone fragments in place to allow alignment and healing. This is done under general anesthesia.