Distal Radius Fracture: What Is It?

Close-up image of doctor using metal clips to secure bandage patient's broken wrist
Jodi Bergeron - Certified Hand Therapist
Written by

Distal radius fractures are the most common type of wrist fracture, with an estimated 20% of fractures treated in emergency rooms involving fractures of the distal radius¹. If you have recently suffered a broken wrist, you may wonder what this injury means for your future. 

This blog post will explore everything you need to know about distal radius fractures. We will discuss the causes, symptoms, recovery time, and treatment options for this injury. After reading this post, we hope you will better understand what to expect if you suffer a broken wrist.

What Is a Distal Radius Fracture?

A distal radius fracture is a medical term for a wrist fracture. It is the most common type of fracture to occur in the wrist and can happen to people of all ages. 

The radius is one of the two bones in the forearm. It is located on the thumb side of the arm and runs from the elbow to the wrist. The part of the radius connected to the wrist joint is called the distal radius. When the radius breaks near the wrist, it is called a distal radius fracture. 

Common Causes of a Fractured Wrist

Doctor examining young boy with broken wrist caused by sport
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Fall Onto an Outstretched Arm: The most common cause of this type of fracture is a fall onto an outstretched arm with the wrist in a hyperextended position. This can happen when you trip or slip on a wet surface and try to catch yourself.

Result of Sports Injury: A sports-related injury is the second leading cause of a distal radius fracture. Generally, any sport involving high impact or contact with hard surfaces has a higher risk for wrist fractures. A distal radius fracture can also be caused by a direct blow to the forearm, as might happen in contact sports such as football or hockey. 

Osteoporosis: As people age, their bones become weaker and more fragile. This is due to a condition called osteoporosis, which causes the loss of bone density and strength. As a result, even a relatively minor fall can cause a break in the bones. Distal radial fractures in the forearm are most commonly broken this way. In fact, many fractures in adults over 60 are caused by a fall from a standing position.

Distal Radius Fracture Symptoms

If you have experienced a sudden pain in your wrist and are having difficulty moving it, you may have a distal radius fracture. 

Symptoms of a distal radius fracture include pain, swelling, and tenderness in the wrist and forearm. The hand may also appear deformed. In some cases, an open wound may be over the fracture site. 

If you suspect you have a broken bone in your wrist, it is important to see a doctor immediately so the bone can be appropriately set and stabilized.

Types of Distal Radius Fractures

Types of distal radius fracture
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When a bone is broken, it is important to classify the types of fractures in order to provide the best possible treatment. 

Depending on the angle of the break, a distal radius fracture can be classified into two common fractures: Colles' fractures and Smith's fractures. 

Colles' fracture: tend to occur when the wrist is extended at the time of injury. Typically when people fall onto an outstretched hand. 

Smith's fracture: is usually caused by an impact to the back of the wrist, which can cause the bone to break. 

Other ways the distal radius can break include:

Extra-articular fracture: is a break that occurs outside of the joint capsule. 

Intra-articular fracture: is a break in the bone that extends into the joint and can damage the cartilage, making it difficult for the joint to move smoothly.

Open fracture: is a break in the bone that has pierced through the skin. 

Comminuted fracture: is a type of fracture that occurs when the bones of the forearm are shattered into more than two pieces. 

Displaced fracture: is a type of fracture where the bones are not aligned correctly.

Treatment for Distal Radius Fracture

There are various surgical and non-surgical treatments for distal radius fractures. The type of treatment for a broken wrist depends on several factors, including the severity of the break, the age and activity level of the patient, potential nerve injury, joint involvement, and whether or not it is displaced. 

In most cases, the immediate treatment for a distal radius fracture is the application of a splint to help with pain control and comfort. Your doctor will likely order X-rays to confirm the diagnosis.

Nonsurgical Treatment Options

Nonoperative treatment is typically recommended for fractured bones that are not displaced or minimally displaced, do not involve the joint surface, and are not associated with nerve injury or severe soft tissue damage. 

Closed Reduction: If the fracture is displaced, meaning it is not in the correct position, it will need to be reduced, or set back into place, before being placed in a splint. Reduction can be performed under local anesthesia, meaning only the fracture area will be numbed. Once the fracture has been reduced, it can be placed in a cast or splint.

Cast Immobilization: Depending on the severity of the fracture, treatment may involve wearing a cast to protect and immobilize the bone so it can heal. Most patients have their cast taken off anywhere from four to eight weeks, depending on the severity of the injury. The doctor will usually take an X-ray to ensure the bone has healed properly before removing the cast.

Surgical Options for Distal Radius Fractures

Doctors performing surgery
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In some cases, surgical treatment may be necessary for fractures that are severely displaced, involve the joint surface or are associated with nerve injury or severe soft tissue damage. Your orthopedic surgeon will decide what type of surgery is necessary for your injury.  

Internal Fixation

One option, known as internal fixation, is where the pieces of the break are positioned into proper alignment and held together with metal plates and screws. This option is usually used for unstable fractures that can't be treated with a cast alone.

External Fixation

There are some instances where internal fixation is not possible. If there are multiple bone fragments, like in a comminuted fracture, plates and screws may not provide enough stability. In these cases, an external fixator can be used to secure the fracture. With an external fixator, nearly all the hardware remains outside the body. This type of fixation can provide greater stability than a cast and is often used for complex fractures.

Recovery Time for Distal Radius Fracture

Healing times vary depending on the type of fracture and the individual patient, but generally, the fractured bone will heal within 4-8 weeks. However, it may take up to 6 months for the wrist to fully recover. 

During that time, it is important to keep the arm immobilized in order to prevent further damage. 

In the first few weeks after surgery or a cast removal, it is normal to experience some residual stiffness, swelling, and pain in the wrist. It is important to remember that this is only temporary. The stiffness will gradually diminish over the course of a few months, and you will start regaining your range of motion. 

Therapy for a Broken Wrist

woman performing therapy on broken wrist
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Once the wrist has healed sufficiently, you may need to undergo physical therapy sessions to help strengthen the muscles and ligaments around the wrist joint. These sessions can be challenging, but they are essential for regaining full use of your wrist. The key is to be patient and to follow your therapist's instructions for rehabilitation exercises. With time and care, your wrist will eventually return to its normal strength and flexibility.

Bone Stimulation 

If your distal radius bone is not healing on its own, your doctor may try using a bone stimulator. These devices provide gentle vibrations or electric pulses to help encourage bone growth.

How to Prevent a Distal Radius Fracture

Good bone health is essential for overall health and wellbeing. Strong bones provide support and structure for our bodies. Unfortunately, our bones can become weaker and more susceptible to fracture as we age. However, there are several steps we can take to prevent this from happening.


Exercise is one of the best ways to maintain strong bones. Weight-bearing activities help to stimulate new bone growth while also strengthening existing bone tissue. 


A healthy diet is also essential for good bone health. Foods rich in calcium, vitamin D, and other minerals are necessary for keeping bones strong and healthy.

Choosing a Cast for Your Wrist Fracture

Choosing the right type of cast is important to ensure that your wrist bones heal properly. And while getting a cast can be frustrating, it's essential to choose the right one for your needs. Let’s take a look at the different cast options available today: 

Plaster Cast: Plaster casts have been used for many years and are still the most common type of cast used today. However, they are bulky, itchy, and uncomfortable.

Fiberglass: Fiberglass casts are stronger and lighter than plaster casts, and they can be made waterproof, but they still have the same disadvantages as plaster casts.

3D Printed Casts: 3D-printed casts are a newer option that offers a more precise fit and can be customized with different colors and designs. Unfortunately, not every clinic has access to expensive 3D printing technology, and the wait times may be inappropriate for your treatment plan.  

Cast21: Cast21 has developed a new approach to orthopedic technology that is sleek, comfortable, and easy to use. Cast21 is engineered with an open lattice structure that is lightweight and breathable, allowing air and moisture to circulate, which helps to prevent skin irritation and itchiness. The waterproof design means patients can shower, bathe and swim without worrying about damaging their Cast21 product. In addition, applying the cast alternative can be completed in just minutes, giving patients a hassle-free experience. 

If you have a wrist fracture, talk to your doctor about which type of cast is right for you and ask about the Cast21 alternative. If you have any questions or want to learn more about Cast21, please contact us. 

Keep Reading: 


  1. Meena, S., Sharma, P., Sambharia, A. K., & Dawar, A. (2014). Fractures of distal radius: An Overview. Journal of family medicine and primary care. Retrieved August 4, 2022, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4311337/ 

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