Wrist injuries can happen when playing sports or just in everyday life. But what sort of injury is it, and what needs to be done? This article explains the different sorts of wrist injury and their treatment.
At a glance
- Sporting accidents involving wrist injuries are common.
- Sprains often heal within a few weeks, while breaks and torn ligaments take longer.
- The wrist sometimes needs to be immobilized.
- An operation is only rarely needed.
Note: The information in this article cannot and should not replace a medical consultation and must not be used for self-diagnosis or treatment.
What is a wrist injury?
Wrist injuries often occur when someone lands on their hands after falling, for example when playing sport. A wrist injury is painful, but it often heals within a few weeks. The wrist sometimes has to be immobilized for quite a while. An operation is only required when the injury is severe.
Different types of wrist injuries are, for example:
- Sprain/pull: the joint is overstretched or over-flexed and the ligaments stretch too much.
- Torn ligament: a ligament in the wrist tears, either partly or completely.
- Dislocation: the bone jumps out of its socket. Muscles, ligaments and the joint capsule can be damaged in the process.
- Broken bone (fracture): the radius, the ulna, the carpel bones (the scaphoid, for example) or the metacarpel bones can break. There might be damage to parts of the joint, ligaments and nerves, depending on the type of break.
What are the symptoms of a wrist injury?
The symptoms vary according to the type of wrist injury. If the ligaments are injured (a sprain or torn ligament), the pain is sometimes not so bad to begin with. Over time, though, the pain can be persistent. In the case of a torn ligament, the person often only notices that the wrist feels unstable after a few weeks.
As a rule, breaks and dislocations hurt more than a sprain. A misalignment is also often visible. As well as pain, there is typically swelling and bruising. If nerves are damaged, the person may feel numbness or tingling in their fingers.
If there is a loss of sensation, bad pain or a misalignment, it is important to get medical help quickly. Once the hand can no longer be moved, it is an emergency. The person should then go straight to hospital.
What causes a wrist injury?
A wrist injury often occurs when someone falls and uses their hands to protect themselves. If the wrist is overstretched or bent as a result the capsule, ligaments and bones can be damaged. Accidents like these often happen when playing sports. But falls and injuries can also occur in everyday life, especially in the case of older people.
People with osteoporosis (bone atrophy) break their wrist more easily if they fall.
Sprains often occur as a result of jerky movements such as hitting a tennis ball or taking a throw-in when playing soccer.
Children often injure their wrists too, as their ligaments, joints and bones are not fully developed. But children’s injuries usually heal successfully.
How does a wrist injury progress?
Depending on the sort of injury, it can take weeks or even several months to heal. Slight sprains heal within 2 to 3 weeks with no further consequences. In contrast, a tear or break can sometimes take up to 6 months to fully heal.
Severe wrist injuries can also lead to long-term restricted mobility, arthritis or ongoing instability.
How is a wrist injury diagnosed?
The doctor first examines the affected hand. They check how mobile the joint is, whether and how swollen it is, and where exactly it hurts. Depending on the injury, this examination is often enough to diagnose a slight sprain, for example. But it may also be necessary to have an X-ray done to verify the state of the bone.
If the doctor suspects a dislocation, torn ligament or broken bone, or if these cannot be ruled out, other imaging methods such as a CT (computed tomography) scan or MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) can be used to make sure.
How is a wrist injury treated?
Immediately after an injury, the person should immobilize the wrist and protect it as quickly as possible. To prevent or lessen any swelling, the wrist can be raised. Depending on the injury, the doctor will apply a tight, elastic bandage, a splint or a cast.
Pain can be treated with creams or tablets containing paracetamol or ibuprofen, for example. If an anti-inflammatory drug, such as ibuprofen, from the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) group is taken over a long period of time, it can be a good idea to also take a drug that prevents the buildup of gastric acids to protect the stomach.
If the wrist is immobilized, it should be for as short a time as possible. Whether and for how long immobilization is needed depends on the type of injury and how the healing process evolves. A few days is often enough for a sprain. In contrast, tears and breaks usually need to be immobilized for several weeks in order not to prevent healing.
The healing of wrist injuries can be helped by physiotherapy or occupational therapy. Exercises help mobility and strengthen the muscles.
Important: A surgical intervention is only needed if, for example, bones have to be aligned after a break, or if a ligament is completely torn, or if there is nerve damage. Depending on the operation, the wrist is then immobilized for a few weeks.
- Deutsche Gesellschaft für Unfallchirurgie e.V. (DGU). Distale Radiusfraktur. S2e-Leitlinie. AWMF-Registernummer 012–015. 03.2021.
- Niethard FU, Pfeil J, Biberthaler P. Duale Reihe Orthopädie und Unfallchirurgie. Thieme: Stuttgart 2014.
- Pschyrembel. Klinisches Wörterbuch. De Gruyter: Berlin 2017.
In cooperation with the Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (Institut für Qualität und Wirtschaftlichkeit im Gesundheitswesen) (IQWiG). As at: