A distal radius fracture is a break at the area of the radius bone near the wrist.  Commonly called a wrist fracture and known medically as a Colles Fracture, a distal radius fracture is a common type of fracture; in fact, the most common type of break to the arm bones.

Read on to learn more about the anatomy of this area, and the symptoms, risk factors, diagnosis, and treatment of a distal radius fracture.

Anatomy of the forearm

The radius is the larger of the two bones extending from the elbow to the wrist.  The end of the radius closest to the wrist is known as the distal end.  Because this area is located at a joint with relatively little protection, it is prone to injury in accidents involving the arms.

In some accidents, a fracture to the distal ulna (the other bone in the forearm) can accompany a fracture of the distal radius.

Causes of distal radius fracture

Distal radius fractures often occur in accidents, such as slips and falls, when someone lands on an outstretched arm.  Furthermore, wrist fractures can occur with forceful impact that occurs in motor vehicle accidents, bicycle accidents, sports accidents, skiing accidents, and related scenarios.

Symptoms of distal radius fractureinclude:

  • Immediate pain
  • Swelling
  • Tenderness
  • Bruising
  • Reduced ability to move the wrist
  • Deformity, as when the wrist is bent or positioned oddly

Risk Factorsfor Wrist Fracture

While a distal radius fracture can occur in health bones given enough force, people with osteoporosis and other diseases of the bone can be at an increased risk for wrist fractures.  In fact, relatively minor falls in people over the age of 60 can result in a broken wrist. Osteoporosis is a factor in approximately 250,000 wrist fractures that occur every year.

Proper bone health can help to prevent fractures of the wrist and other bones.  With sports, wrist guards can help to prevent wrist fractures as well.

Diagnosis of distal radius fracture

To determine the location and extent of a distal radius fracture, a doctor will usually perform a physical examination and x-ray tests.

While the location of a distal radius fracture is most commonly about one inch from the tip of the bone, fractures to this area can occur in different ways.  The following are the different types of distal radius fractures:

  • Intra-articular fracture:  a distal radius fracture that extended into the joint.
  • Extra-articular fracture: a wrist fracture that does not extend to the joint.
  • Open fracture: a wrist fracture where the bone breaks through the skin.
  • Comminuted fracture: a wrist fracture in which the bone breaks in more than two places.

The type of fracture is important to determine, as this will factor prominently into how the distal radius fracture is treated.

Treatment of Wrist Fracture


Wrist fractures may or may not require emergency medical treatment, depending on the type of fracture, the presence of deformity, and the level of pain.  Ice, elevation, and a splint can be used between the time of injury and a visit to the doctor.

The type of treatment that will be used to treat the distal radius fracture will depend on the type of fracture, the patient’s age and health, and the doctor’s personal preferences and recommendations.

Putting the wrist in a cast is one non-surgical option that may be appropriate if the broken bone is stable and in the proper position.  Casting causes immobilization, which can give the bone a chance to heal.  Prior to casting the arm, the doctor may have to perform a reduction, or a straightening and re-alignment of the bones.

A cast is typically worn from 2 to 6 weeks, and may be changed during this time if swelling has gone down and, consequently, loosened the cast.  A doctor will usually perform a repeat x-ray during recovery to ensure that the bone is healing properly and at an acceptable rate.

In more complicated distal radius fractures, surgery may be necessary.

Surgical options for a distal radius fracture can include realigning the broken bones through an incision in the skin (an open reduction), stabilizing the bone with metal pins, plates or screws, use of an external fixator, or some combination of these techniques.

Following surgery, a patient will usually be advised to use ice, elevation, and some pain medication.   Most surgeons will cast the wrist area following surgery to immobilize the bone and give it a chance to heal.  However, use of a cast will depend on the nature of the fracture surgery.

After surgery, a cast is usually work for about six weeks.  During the rehabilitation period, a doctor will often recommend physical therapy or a set of recommended exercises to help return strength, stability and range of motion to the bone and wrist area.  Most patients find they can resume normal activities 3 to 6 months after their injury.  However, symptoms such as stiffness and reduced motion may persist for up to two years.

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