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What is a Colles' Fracture?

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  • Written By: D. Jeffress
  • Edited By: Jenn Walker
  • Last Modified Date: 18 November 2016
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A Colles' fracture is a break at the lower base of the radius bone. It is a common type of wrist fracture that usually occurs when a person tries to catch him or herself during a fall. Young children and older people with osteoporosis are at the greatest risk of suffering Colles' fractures, though anyone can experience a break with a severe injury. A Colles' fracture usually results in intense pain and swelling, and the wrist may be noticeably out of alignment. It is important to receive immediate professional treatment for a wrist fracture to prevent further damage and ensure the bone heals properly.

The Colles' fracture, named for the first surgeon to describe the condition, is also known as a distal radius fracture due to the location where the break occurs. The radius is the main bone of the forearm that runs parallel to the ulna. Its distal end fits into a notch at the wrist joint. The bone fractures when excessive force is placed on a fully outstretched arm with the palm turned upwards.

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Pain and localized swelling immediately accompany a Colles' fracture. The wrist tends to become very weak, and it is usually impossible to grasp or lift an object. In the case of a severe break, a bump can be seen above the wrist where the radius splits from the joint. Following an injury, the wrist should be immobilized by wrapping or splinting it until medical care can be sought. It is important to keep the joint elevated and iced on the way to the emergency room to ease pain and swelling.

At the emergency room, a doctor can administer painkillers, examine the wrist, and try to set the Colles' fracture back into place. The doctor can take x-rays to view the extent and precise location of the fracture, and check for signs of nerve compression or ligament tears. Depending on the severity of a break, the physician may decide to place the hand in a soft splint or a hard plaster cast to keep it immobilized. Casts are usually worn for at least one month to give the radius time to mend itself. A follow-up examination can determine the need for surgery, physical therapy, or preventive care.

After a cast comes off, the wrist usually feels weak and possibly still sore. A doctor can help his or her patient identify low-impact exercises to regain strength and flexibility. Patients are usually encouraged to wear wrist braces when engaging in physical activity. With successful treatment and regular checkups, an individual can usually regain full use of his or her wrist.

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