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  • Writer's pictureHannah Foster-Middleton

BROKEN ARM RECOVERY: WHAT TO EXPECT AS YOU HEAL


A broken arm can result from a fall, athletic injury, or any number of other accidents. Recovery often involves wearing a splint, brace, or cast to immobilize the arm so it can heal.

In some cases, surgery may be necessary when the fracture doesn’t break the skin or the bone is broken into pieces. As such, treatment can vary based on the specific damage.

How Does a Broken Arm Occur?

Broken arms account for roughly 50 percent of all broken bone injuries among adults. For children, they are the second most common broken bone behind the collarbone.

The arm consists of three key bones: The humerus connects the shoulder to the elbow, where it meets the radius and ulna, which both pass to the wrist. Injuries may occur from:

·         Landing and placing your body weight on an outstretched hand

·         Receiving a blow from a heavy object

·         Getting into a car accident that applies direct force to the arm

In these scenarios, the location of the force, the angle of the fall, and your age all play a part in where the fracture occurs and its severity.

General Timeline for Recovery

A broken arm typically takes six weeks to heal. However, multiple factors can shorten or lengthen recovery time, including the type of break and where it occurred. Additional injury to the wrist and elbow typically involves a lengthier recovery than anywhere else along the upper or forearm.

While immobilization is expected during recovery, physiotherapy may be recommended to strengthen the joint’s muscles and improve movement to help restore functionality.

What to Expect

Initially, after a broken arm occurs, you may need to undergo surgery to stabilize the fracture. Reduction may be needed to piece the arm back together. Regardless of treatment, patients can experience a high degree of pain and swelling from the injury through surgery.

During this time, you may be given a prescription painkiller and told to elevate your arm to lessen potential swelling. Your doctor may also place a fixation device with plates, screws or wires to keep the bones in place as the injury heals. At this stage, watch to see if the swelling goes down or an infection develops. From these initial stages, you should be prepared for the following steps of the recovery process.

PAIN AND MEDICATIONS

As the break heals, new nerves will form.  Although this process is natural, the regeneration of nerve fibers can result in pain. During this time, it’s best to keep your arm immobile to help lessen discomfort.

As you recover from a broken arm, not all pain is created equal. If the pain persists after the acute stage or returns once the swelling goes down, this can be a sign the injury has not healed correctly or you have an infection. If you experience this issue, reach out to your doctor. 

You may also be prescribed medications during the early stages, including an antibiotic to lessen infection risk and a pain reliever. Pain can also be managed with an ice pack or over-the-counter pain reliever. However, you may want to avoid non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs), as they can stall the bone healing process.

IMMOBILIZATION

Based on where the injury occurred and its severity, the immobilization phase may last anywhere from two to more than six weeks. Expect a longer recovery if you have to undergo surgery.

As movement lessens potential atrophy and stiffness, your doctor may provide a list of the activities you can and cannot do. Over this period, prepare for periodic X-ray appointments that assess how well the break is healing and ensure it has not shifted in your arm.

CHECKING FOR COMPLICATIONS

Along with keeping active, look for potential complications that could indicate improper or delayed healing. Although swelling, bleeding, and infections are more likely to develop early on in recovery; other signs may emerge after the pain subsides:

·         Hands or fingers that feel cool or have a bluish tint

·         Persistent numbness or tingling

·         Ongoing pain, despite taking a pain reliever

·         Chills or fever

·         Muscle stiffness or weakness, which may indicate arthritis

STARTING PHYSIotherapy

As your injury starts to heal, physiotherapy helps reduce and manage potential stiffness in your arm, hand, and shoulder that can result from wearing a cast or sling. Physical therapy often continues once you are no longer immobilizing the arm to further improve muscle strength and joint flexibility.

While recovering from a broken arm, expect to do hand or shoulder exercises based on the injury’s location. Once the cast, sling, or brace is taken off, therapy will progress to full arm motion exercises. Especially if you underwent surgery, this phase of therapy may last a few months.

Along with the motion, physiotherapy can address sub-acute pain and potential weakness that affect how you lift and hold items. After a broken arm, many patients experience decreased muscle and bone mass that affects how the joints or muscles in the injured area function. Physiotherapy ultimately helps you restore movement and achieve a sense of normalcy.

LONG TERM

Expect 12 weeks for the broken or fractured arm to heal fully. Even with physiotherapy, it can take up to two years for full strength to be restored. During this time, you may be asked to limit or take precautions with work, driving, sports, and other activities that involve pushing or pulling.

However, recovery is not always consistent or equal among patients. Certain people may find their sub-acute pain develops into a chronic condition resulting from scar tissue, nerve damage, arthritis, or changes in how the brain perceives pain. As a result, it’s important to let your doctor know about these developments. You may be directed to additional physiotherapy to manage chronic pain.

 

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