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Colles' Fractures: Definition, Treatment & Complications

Instructor: Wendy McDougal

Wendy has taught high school Biology and has a master's degree in education.

A Colles' fracture is a type of broken bone near the wrist. It occurs in the radius bone of the forearm. Learn more about this type of fracture and take a short quiz to test what you have learned.

What is a Colles' Fracture?

There are many ways that humans can injure their bodies. Cuts and scrapes are fairly common occurrences for many of us. We get bumped and bruised, and perhaps suffer the occasional burn. But one of the most unfortunate injuries is a broken bone. One wrong step, a slip and a fall, and a bone can snap or crack in the blink of an eye. The result is a cast, possibly crutches, and sometimes even surgery.

Broken Arm in Cast
Arm in Cast

Of all the places in the body, the most common bone to break is the larger bone of the forearm, known as the radius. Why is this the case? Think about what happens when you know you are about to fall. Your first thought is to catch yourself, or break the fall. Your hands reflexively go out, resulting in a potentially hard landing that jolts the wrist. If you happen to land wrong, you might feel a crack and then extreme pain. This type of fall onto an outstretched hand often results in a particular type of break known as a Colles' fracture. In this lesson you will learn more about this type of fracture and gain an understanding of what makes it unique.

Location of Radius Bone
Radius bone

Examples of Colles' Fractures

When you see someone with their arm in a cast, you can pretty accurately assume that they have broken their arm. However, the term ''broken arm'' is almost as much a generalization as stating that someone is ''sick.'' Just as there are many different types of illness, there are also many variations of the broken arm. We have established that a Colles' fracture is one of these varieties. Now let's take a look at this fracture from a more technical standpoint.

Named after the Irish surgeon who first described the break, a Colles' fracture tends to occur when an individual falls onto their outstretched hand. To be more specific, it is the distal end of the radius that breaks, or the end closest to the wrist. Distal radius fractures nearly always happen very close to the end of the bone, within about an inch. While a distal radius fracture is very common, the Colles' fracture is one specific type. In this type of fracture, the broken part of the radius is tilted upward due to the angle of the wrist at the time of the fall.

Xray Showing Colles Fractures
Xray of Colles fractures

Who is at risk for this type of fracture? Elderly people tend to experience Colles' fractures because of osteoporosis, a shrinking of the bone mass which causes bones to become fragile. Younger people who suffer these types of fractures receive them as a result of a fall with more force than that of simply slipping or tripping. A fall off of a bike or a horse may result in a Colles fracture, as well as any other type of accident where larger amounts of force occur.

Treatment for Colles' Fractures

Any potentially broken bone must be diagnosed by a physician. The first step is an X-ray to determine the exact nature of the break. If the bone is out of place, it must be set back into place, a process known as reduction. When the bone is realigned, it can be put into a splint to allow for normal amounts of swelling. Once the swelling has gone down, it is time for a cast. A cast is typically left on the arm for six to eight weeks, so that the limb will be immobile in order for the bone to heal. Sometimes a cast must be removed and replaced with another during this time if the swelling continues to go down and the cast becomes loose.

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