Fractures of the distal radius are common upper limb injuries.1
Distal radius fractures are a common presentation to emergency departments and urgent care centres.
Many patients can be initially treated, and then discharged for orthopaedic follow up. However, it is important to identify patients with displaced fractures or neurovascular compromise who may require urgent orthopaedic intervention.2
Fractures of the distal radius are most common in two main groups of patients:3
Young patients who participate in sport or are involved in trauma
Elderly patients with osteoporosis and low energy trauma
The most common mechanism of injury is a fall onto an outstretched hand (FOOSH). If atraumatic, a pathological fracture should be suspected, and further workup should investigate for malignancy (e.g. blood tests including FBC, serum calcium, alkaline phosphatase and an isotope bone scan).
Types of distal radius fracture
There are three key fractures of the distal radius to be aware of:
Colles’ fracture (most common): an extra-articular fracture with dorsal displacement (“dinner fork deformity”)
Smith’s fracture: an extra-articular fracture with volar displacement
Barton’s fracture: an intra-articular fracture with associated dislocation of the radiocarpal joint
Risk factors can be thought of in terms of those which increase the risk of osteoporosis and those which increase the risk of falling (Table 1).
Table 1. An overview of risk factors for fractures of the distal radius.
Open wound and/or the bone protruding through the skin (open fractures require different management due to the risk of infection)
Loss of sensation or movement distal to the fracture (suggesting nerve injury)
Pulselessness and/or pallor of the hand (suggesting vascular compromise)
For suspected distal radius fractures, the neurological examination should also include assessment of the median, ulnar and radial nerves (Figure 1).
To assess the median nerve:
Motor: grip strength and OK sign
Sensory: the tip of the second digit (digital cutaneous branch) and thenar eminence (palmar cutaneous branch)
To assess the ulnar nerve:
Motor: finger abduction/adduction
Sensory: the tip of the little finger
To assess the radial nerve:
Motor: finger and wrist extension
Sensory: dorsal first webspace
The clinical presentation of fractures of the distal radius is similar to several other fractures of the wrist:5
Scaphoid fracture: commonly caused by a FOOSH as well. However, the main complaint is typically localised pain and tenderness over the anatomical snuffbox (triangular depression over lateral, dorsal hand).
Ulnar styloid fracture: fracture of the ulnar styloid may be associated with distal radius fractures. It typically presents with local tenderness over the ulnar styloid.
Fracture of the radial shaft: less common than distal radius fractures. The range of motion of the wrist is typically pain-free.
Relevant bedside investigations include:
Electrocardiogram (ECG): if there is suspicion of cardiac involvement in the fall
Urine dipstick: if there is suspicion of a UTI causing confusion as a reason for the fall
Blood sugar monitoring (BM): if there is suspicion of a hypoglycaemic episode as a reason for the fall
Relevant laboratory investigations include:
Baseline blood tests (FBC, U&E, LFTs)
Bone profile if suspecting osteoporosis (vitamin D, serum calcium, ALP)
Relevant imaging investigations include:6
X-rays: AP and lateral views of the wrist (Figure 2)
CT: may be required if suspected intra-articular involvement or for pre-operative planning
MRI: may be required if suspected soft tissue injuries
A wrist fracture is the most common fragility fracture in perimenopausal and young postmenopausal women.1
If the fracture is thought to be a fragility fracture due to osteoporosis, the FRAX® risk assessment tool should be used to assess whether osteoporosis treatment should be started (bisphosphonates) or if a DEXA scan (dual-energy x-ray absorptiometry) is indicated.8
According to the British Orthopaedic Associations’ standards for practice, the aim of treatment is to optimise functional recovery rather than achieving specific radiological parameters.9
Management of distal radius fractures can be structured according to their immediate management (usually done in the emergency department) followed by the definitive management (usually decided upon by the orthopaedic team in the fracture clinic).
Regardless of the specific type of fracture, the immediate management remains the same:9
Assessment of skin integrity and neurovascular status: capillary refill time, movements and sensations in the hand
Removal of any rings or jewellery on the affected hand
Reduction of displaced fractures: under intravenous regional anaesthesia (IVRA) or haematoma block, followed by repeat X-ray
Immediate immobilisation (e.g. back slab cast)
All patients should be referred to the fracture clinic service and assessed within 72 hours.9
Table 2. Overview of definitive management strategies for types of wrist fractures
Type of fracture
Stable, undisplaced fracture
Below elbow cast for 4-6 weeks
Repeat X-ray at 1 week to ensure fracture remains undisplaced
If patients are unable to tolerate cast, or in those with an incomplete fracture, a forearm splint holding the wrist in neutral can be used.
Colle’s fracture (dorsal displacement)
For patients with simple fracture patterns and/or poor co-morbid status:
Non-operative treatment = manipulation under anaesthetic (MUA) and below elbow cast for 4-6 weeks
For patients with complex fracture patterns and good co-morbid status:
Closed reduction and K-wiring
If cannot be reduced, open reduction & internal fixation (ORIF) with plate and screws
Smith’s fracture (volar displacement)
Any volar displacement is always unstable and will, therefore, need surgical fixation (unless surgery is unsuitable due to co-morbidities):
ORIF with plate and screws
The chance of successful reduction is low, therefore ORIF is usually required.
If it is a volar Barton’s fracture, these (like Smith’s) are always unstable and require surgical fixation
All patients should receive information regarding expected functional recovery and rehabilitation, including advice about the return to normal activities such as work, education and driving.
Patients should be able to self-refer to the fracture service if progress is not as anticipated and hospitals should provide this mechanism.9
Whether the patient is being treated in a cast or splint or is awaiting surgical fixation, it is critical to have them begin rehabilitation of the hand at the earliest opportunity. Rehabilitation includes:
Elevation of the limb
Early finger motion
Occupational therapy programme (graduated range of motion programme) as the fracture unites
Cast care advice
Patients should be educated on cast care, as well as safety-netted about when to return to the ED. Most casts are removed after 4-6 weeks.
Cast care advice should include:
Keep plaster dry
Do not scratch underneath the plaster
Keep elevated for the first week to help reduce the swelling
Keep fingers moving to improve circulation and reduce stiffness
Patients should be advised to return to the emergency department if they develop any of the following red flags:
Increasing pain in the area
Numbness in the fingers
Increasing swelling in the fingers
Change of colour in the fingers
The plaster becomes wet or damaged
Generic complications, which may occur with any fracture, include:
Specific complications of distal radius fractures include:
Malunion (most common complication)
Stiffness/decreased range of movement
Acute median and/or ulnar nerve damage (~10% of low energy fractures and 30% of high energy fractures)3
Extensor pollicis longus rupture: patient will be unable to lift their thumb off the table (3-5%)10
Chronic regional pain syndrome
Fractures of the distal radius are common upper limb injuries following a fall onto an outstretched hand (FOOSH).
There are three important types of wrist fractures: Colle’s fractures, Smith’s fractures and Barton’s fractures.
Colles’ fractures are the most common type of wrist fracture (~15% of the population).
The most common clinical findings are pain, swelling and deformity of the wrist.
Neurovascular status should be checked distally to any fracture.
Immediate management involves administering analgesia, reducing displaced fractures and immobilisation of the wrist.
Definitive management depends on the direction of any displacement of the fracture. Volar displaced fractures always require surgical fixation.
Specific complications of distal radius fractures include malunion, decreased range of movement, nerve damage (median/ulnar) and osteoarthritis.
Miss Nicola MacKay
Trauma and Orthopaedics Registrar
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