Summit hand and upper extremity surgeon J.P. Delaney, M.D., explains whether you can break your hand without realizing it.
It’s a common scenario. An athlete jams a finger during a basketball game, or a person slips on an icy sidewalk and uses a wrist to break the fall. It doesn’t seem serious, but afterward, the affected hand or wrist is bruised, swollen, and painful. It could be a sprain, but can you break your hand without realizing it?
In a word, yes. “Oftentimes people hurt a finger, hand, or wrist and think it’s a sprain. Both a sprain and a break can swell, bruise, and be painful,” said Summit hand and upper extremity surgeon J.P. Delaney, M.D.
How can you break your hand without realizing it?
The most common hand breaks that come as a surprise are in the fingers. In the wrist, the scaphoid bone can be fractured with symptoms that mimic a sprain. Knowing whether your finger, hand, or wrist is actually fractured rather than sprained can make a difference.
“If it’s broken, it doesn’t mean a person has to have surgery necessarily, but it may change the treatment plan or change the expected recovery time,” Dr. Delaney said. “Both breaks and bad sprains can cause swelling and bruising for a while — they can mimic each other.”
In the wrist, you should definitely suspect a break if there is any deformity — that is, if the wrist does not look normally aligned. “If the wrist looks crooked, if it’s not bending correctly, or if it’s twisted, a person should come in for an X-ray,” Dr. Delaney said.
An X-ray is an easy, fast, and relatively inexpensive test that uses a very small amount of radiation. It will be able to show a fracture right away and reveal whether you have broken your hand without realizing it. “It’s reasonable to get an X-ray to know for sure,” Dr. Delaney said. “Even if it is broken, surgery is not always needed.”
What happens if you’ve broken your hand or wrist without realizing it?
Breaks can heal faster than sprains, in fact. “Bone-to-bone healing is often the fastest that we see. If the hand, wrist, or finger is broken, but the pieces haven’t moved, it can be treated nonoperatively,” Dr. Delaney said.
If the pieces of bone have changed position, he noted, surgery may sometimes be necessary. Fractures that heal in the wrong position can lead to long-term pain and stiffness, functional problems, lack of range of motion, and can even result in rotational problems, where the broken finger can rotate under the adjacent one.
In short, if your finger, hand, or wrist is bruised and swollen, get an X-ray to rule out a fracture. You may have broken your hand or wrist without realizing it. If it is fractured, proper care — not necessarily surgery — can help you recover faster and avoid long-term problems.
Summit Orthopedics provides personalized hand and wrist expertise.
Start your journey to better function and less pain. Find your hand expert, schedule an appointment online, or call us at (651) 968–5201 to schedule a consultation.
More resources for you:
- Learn about hand and wrist fractures.
- Meet Dr. Delaney with this introductory video.
- Learn how wrist fractures are treated.