Arm, Shoulder, or Finger Fracture

Arm, shoulder, and finger fractures are bone breaks occurring anywhere in the limbs of the upper body, also called the upper extremities. There are numerous bones in the upper extremities, some large, many small, and all of them susceptible to breaks, dislocations, or damage. Injuries of the upper extremities are common. Fingers were the most frequently injured region of the upper limbs, and home was the most common setting.

Though treatment of a bone break often begins at home, more intensive medical care is usually required. The orthopedic and sports-medicine specialists at Baptist Health are experienced in diagnosing and treating fractures.

Symptoms of Arm, Shoulder, and Finger Fractures

To have a “broken arm” is to break one of three arm bones: the humerus, or upper arm bone, or the ul­na or radius, the lower arm bones. Shoulder fractures can encompass the humerus, the scapula or shoulder blade, and the clavicle or collar bone. Shoulder injuries often involve the joint itself. Finger fractures can occur in any of the 14 finger bones, called phalanges – three in each index, middle, ring, and pinky finger plus two in each thumb.

Symptoms for bone breaks anywhere in the upper extremities include:

  • A cracking or snapping sound when the break occurs
  • Extreme pain
  • Swelling and tenderness
  • Bruising and discoloration
  • Limited mobility
  • Unnatural bends or bumps in the arm, shoulder, or fingers

Causes of Arm, Shoulder, and Finger Fractures

Prominent among the causes of arm, shoulder, and finger fractures are:

  • Athletic injuries
  • Work-related injuries
  • Falls
  • Auto accidents and related forms of blunt trauma

Abusive behavior can also be a source of fractures.

Risk Factors of Upper Extremity Fractures

Certain factors increase the likelihood of broken bones in the upper limbs:

  • Participation in sports: Playing sports that involve regular physical contact or the risk of falling add to the possibility of incurring an arm, shoulder, or finger fracture.
  • Osteological abnormalities: Certain medical conditions, such as osteoporosis, weaken the bones, making them more susceptible to injury. 

Sex and age can also play a role. Being young and male makes particular injuries – for example, scapular fractures – more likely, if only because young men are often the chief participants in contact sports.

Preventing Arm, Shoulder, and Finger Fractures

There are several steps you can take to reduce the risk of injury to bones:

  • Exercise: Weightlifting and other physical activities that build muscle can also strengthen bone. An additional benefit is improved balance, which helps you avoid the falls that tend to come with aging.
  • Eat right: Calcium-rich foods are a critical aspect of a healthy diet. Dairy products, such as milk, cheese, and yogurt, contain this bone-strengthening mineral. Vitamin D is important, too, because it assists your body in calcium absorption. You’ll find this vitamin in orange juice, milk, and fatty fish like salmon and lake trout.
  • Avoid smoking: Smoking reduces bone mass and slows natural healing processes.
  • Avoid falling: Avoid falling by avoiding dangerous surfaces, wearing low-heeled and well-soled shoes, installing bright lights, and removing potential tripping risks, such as electrical cords.
  • Wear protective gear: If you’re physically active, be sure to wear appropriate safety gear for your shoulders, arms, wrists, and hands.

Diagnosing Arm, Shoulder, and Finger Fractures

To diagnose an arm, shoulder, or finger fracture, your physician will:

  • Document your health and medical history
  • Ask you questions and make a record of your symptoms
  • Examine your shoulder, arm, and/or fingers, according to the symptoms reported
  • Analyze evidence of inflammation, discoloration, cuts, misalignments, and/or deformities, as appropriate
  • Utilize imaging technology, such as X-rays or magnetic resonance imaging (MRIs), to identify possible under-the-skin structural issues

In confirming the diagnosis, your physician will also categorize your injury by fracture type. The most common varieties are:

  • Greenstick fracture: The injured bone bends and partially breaks.  This is a common occurrence in childhood fractures due to bones still being soft.
  • Closed fracture: The injured bone is broken but the skin remains intact.
  • Open or compound fracture: The broken bone protrudes through the skin.
  • Displaced fracture: The pieces of a broken bone are no longer aligned.
  • Comminuted fracture: The injured bone is broken into several pieces.
  • Torus or buckle fracture: The bone is bent or buckled on one side. This is also common in childhood fractures.

Treating Arm, Shoulder, and Finger Fractures

Treating a fracture will require some combination of:

  • Bone-setting: Also called reduction, setting the bone means returning the broken pieces to their original position and alignment.
  • Immobilization: Once properly realigned, the fractured bone must be immobilized. Your physician can advance the healing process, or at least prevent any further damage before surgery, by applying a splint, sling, or cast to the wounded limb.
  • Surgery: In some cases, surgery is necessary to restore the bone’s structural integrity. A variety of devices, including wires, screws, and plates, can be surgically implanted to facilitate proper healing. In the most extreme cases – for example, destruction of the shoulder – joint replacement may be called for.
  • Medications: Fractures can be painful. Both over-the-counter and prescription pain medications can be utilized to manage discomfort. Open fractures run a serious risk of infection; depending on the nature of your break, you may also be prescribed antibiotics.
  • Therapy: Rehabilitative treatment is required following immobilization and surgery. Exercise can reduce stiffness and strengthen muscles that have atrophied from lack of use.

Complications of Upper Extremity Fractures

With appropriate care, upper limb fractures often heal successfully. Recovery time will depend on the nature and severity of the injury, and the treatment received for it. That said, medical complications do sometimes occur. These may include:

  • Stiffness
  • Infections
  • Nerve and circulatory damage
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Uneven growth in children’s bones

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