It is a natural instinct to put out a hand and to try to catch oneself during a fall. This impulse is the cause for nearly all wrist sprains and fractures. Medical professionals even have an acronym for this mechanism of injury: FOOSH stands for “fall on outstretched hand.”

The wrist is composed of a complex network of bones, tendons, ligaments, and nerves.
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Guide to Wrist Anatomy

When a wrist injury occurs, it can be difficult to determine what type of injury has occurred. Most frequently, the resulting wrist injury is either a sprain or fracture.

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Common Wrist Fractures and Sprains

A fracture is the medical term for a broken bone. The most common type of wrist fracture is a distal radius fracture, which is a fracture at the end of the long radius bone of the forearm.

Another type of wrist fracture affects one of the eight small round carpal bones in the wrist. This is known as a scaphoid fracture. Scaphoid fractures are less common but more difficult to heal.

See Scaphoid Fracture and Other Types of Wrist Fractures

Sprains occur when ligaments—the fibrous bands of tissue that connect bones to each other—are stretched or torn. Wrist sprains are frequently caused by injury of the scapholunate ligament, which is a very important ligament that connects the scaphoid and the lunate carpal bones.

See Ligaments, Tendons, and Nerves of the Wrist

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Signs of a Fracture vs. a Sprain

People may assume the level of pain an injury causes is directly related to the extent of an injury. Therefore, a sprain would cause less pain than a fracture. This is not necessarily the case. Fractures can cause mild or dull pain, and sprains can often cause severe pain.

There are a few telltale symptoms to detect a wrist fracture: deformity of the wrist or bone matter breaking through the skin are obvious signs of fracture. When these occur, individuals need to seek medical care right away.

See Less Common Types of Wrist Fractures

However, other wrist injury symptoms are common for both fractures and sprains. These can include:

  • Swelling in the wrist
  • Bruising over the wrist or surrounding area
  • Pain when moving the wrist or hand
  • Weakness or inability to grasp or pick up objects

An x-ray performed and read by a qualified physician is usually necessary to confirm whether a wrist injury is a sprain or fracture. If symptoms of a wrist injury persist beyond 48 hours, individuals should seek medical care for an accurate diagnosis and treatment.

See Diagnosing and Treating Scaphoid Fractures of the Wrist

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