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Broken Arm Recovery: 5 Things to Know

Woman with cast on broken arm

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Art of the Arm by DJ Lynn

A broken arm—also called a fracture—is a common injury. Recovering from a broken arm can include wearing a cast, brace, splint or sling. These prevent movement while your arm heals. The term for this prevention of movement is immobilization. If the fracture does not break the skin and the bones are in good position, you may only need immobilization to heal. However, if your skin is broken or your bone is shattered or pushed way out of place, you may need surgery. 

How long it takes a broken arm to recover varies from person to person. It depends on the type of break and the treatment. There are three bones in your arm that can fracture. They are the two bones in your forearm—the radius and ulna—and the humerus bone in your upper arm, which connects your elbow to your shoulder. Fractures involving your wrist or elbow may need a longer recovery.

After your fracture has started to heal, you can move from immobilization to movement. Movement and strengthening exercises through physical therapy are an important part of recovery.

Here are five things to know about broken arm recovery:

1. Early recovery may be painful

Your doctor may prescribe a strong pain medication for a few days right after a fracture. This medication is usually an opioid pain reliever. Do not drive when taking this medication and take it only as instructed by your doctor. After a few days, your doctor may switch you to an over-the-counter pain reliever. You can also help reduce pain by using an ice pack. Keeping your arm raised above the level of your heart when you’re resting should help as well.

2. Immobilization can last 2 to 6 weeks

You will get specific instructions on how to care for your cast, splint, brace or sling. While your arm is immobilized, it’s still important to stay active. Ask your doctor what activities are safe for you. While your arm is immobile, your doctor may bring you back for repeat X-rays to see how your fracture is healing. Immobilization may last longer if you have surgery.

3. Physical therapy starts as soon as possible

Physical therapy is an important part of recovering from a broken arm. It helps prevent stiffness and weakness. You may begin some physical therapy while you’re still immobilized. For instance, you may start hand exercises within a few days of immobilization. If you have a forearm fracture, you may start shoulder exercises. Most healing takes place in the first 6 to 12 weeks. Healing may take longer after surgery. After the immobilization period, you may begin full range-of-motion exercises. Physical therapy can last for weeks or months. Physical therapy after surgery may last longer.

4. Full recovery can take months or years

It can take about 12 weeks for an arm fracture to heal completely. During this time, you may be restricted from some movements. Lifting, pushing and pulling may be off limits. Getting full strength, motion and use back can take up to two years for a fracture that needed surgery. Ask your doctor when you can return to activities like sports, work and driving.

5. Complications can occur during recovery

Complications from a broken arm can include bleeding, swelling, nerve damage, blood vessel damage, and poor healing. Swelling, bleeding and infection are most likely early on in your recovery period. These complications are more common after surgery. Other complications take longer to develop. For instance, arthritis may be a late complication of elbow or wrist fractures. Let your doctor know if you have:

  • Chills or fever
  • Hands or fingers that are cool or bluish-colored
  • Numbness or tingling
  • Pain that is getting worse or not controlled by your pain medication
  • Pain, stiffness or weakness that is not getting better with physical therapy 

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