Arm Injuries

Topic Overview

Minor arm injuries are common. Symptoms often develop from everyday wear and tear, overuse, or an injury. Arm injuries are often caused by:

  • Sports or hobbies.
  • Work-related tasks.
  • Work or projects around the home.

Your child may injure his or her arm during sports or play or from accidental falls. The chance of having an injury is higher in contact sports (such as wrestling, football, or soccer) and in high-speed sports (such as biking, in-line skating, skiing, snowboarding, and skateboarding). Forearms, wrists, hands, and fingers are injured most often. An injury to the end of a long bone near a joint may harm the growth plate and needs to be checked by a doctor.

Older adults have a greater chance for injuries and broken bones because they lose muscle mass and bone strength (osteoporosis) as they age. Older adults also have more problems with vision and balance, which increases their chances of having an accidental injury.

Most minor injuries will heal on their own, and home treatment is usually all that is needed to relieve symptoms and promote healing.

Acute injuries

Acute injuries come on suddenly and may be caused by a direct blow, a penetrating injury, or a fall or from twisting, jerking, jamming, or bending a limb abnormally. Pain may be sudden and severe. Bruising and swelling may develop soon after the injury. Acute injuries usually require prompt medical evaluation and may include:

  • Bruises (contusions), which occur when small blood vessels under the skin tear or rupture, often from a twist, bump, or fall. Blood leaks into tissues under the skin and causes a black-and-blue color that often turns purple, red, yellow, and green as the bruise heals.
  • Injuries to the tough, ropey fibers (ligaments) that connect bone to bone and help stabilize joints (sprains).
  • Injuries to the tough, ropey fibers that connect muscle to bone (tendons).
  • Pulled muscles (strains).
  • Muscle ruptures, such as a biceps or triceps rupture.
  • Broken bones (fractures). A break may occur when a bone is twisted, struck directly, or used to brace against a fall.
  • Pulling or pushing bones out of their normal relationship to the other bones that make up a joint (dislocations).

Overuse injuries

Overuse injuries occur when stress is placed on a joint or other tissue, often by "overdoing" an activity or repeating the same activity. Overuse injuries include:

  • Pain and swelling of the sac of fluid that cushions and lubricates the joint area between one bone and another bone, a tendon, or the skin (bursitis).
  • Pain and swelling of the tough, ropey fibers that connect muscles to bones (tendinitis).
  • Pain and swelling from tiny tears (microtears) in the connective tissue in or around the tendon (tendinosis). Other symptoms of this type of tendon injury include loss of strength or movement in the arm.
  • Hairline cracks in bones of the arm (stress fractures).
  • Pressure on nerves in the arm, such as carpal tunnel syndrome.

Treatment

Treatment for an arm injury may include first aid measures (such as using a brace, splint, or cast), "setting" a broken bone or returning a dislocated joint to its normal position, physical therapy, medicines, and in some cases surgery. Treatment depends on:

  • The location, type, and severity of the injury.
  • When the injury occurred.
  • Your age, health condition, and activities (such as work, sports, or hobbies).

Check your symptoms to decide if and when you should see a doctor.

Check Your Symptoms

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Home Treatment

First aid for a suspected broken bone

  • Control bleeding with direct pressure to the wound.
  • Remove all bracelets and rings. It may be hard to remove the jewelry if your arm or hand swells. Swelling without removal of jewelry can cause other serious problems, such as nerve compression or restricted blood flow.
  • Do not try to straighten the injured arm. If a bone is sticking out of the skin, do not try to push it back into the skin. Cover the area with a clean bandage, and use a splint to support the arm in its current position.
  • Splint an injured arm to protect it from further injury. Loosen the wrap around the splint if you have numbness, tingling, increased pain, swelling, cool skin, or other symptoms. The wrap may be too tight.
  • Use a sling to support the injured arm.

Cast and splint care

If your arm is in a cast or splint, your doctor will give you instructions on how to care for your cast or splint. Try to move the uninjured parts of your arm as normally as possible to help maintain muscle strength and tone.

Home treatment for a minor injury

If you have a minor injury and do not need to be checked by a doctor, you may be able to use home treatment to help relieve pain, swelling, and stiffness.

  • Rest and protect an injured or sore area. Stop, change, or take a break from any activity that may be causing your pain or soreness.
  • Ice will reduce pain and swelling. Apply ice or cold packs immediately to prevent or minimize swelling. Apply the ice or cold pack for 10 to 20 minutes, 3 or more times a day.
    • For the first 48 hours after an injury, avoid things that might increase swelling, such as hot showers, hot tubs, hot packs, or alcoholic beverages.
    • After 48 to 72 hours, if swelling is gone, apply heat and begin gentle exercise with the aid of moist heat to help restore and maintain flexibility. Some experts recommend alternating between heat and cold treatments.
  • Compression, or wrapping the injured or sore area with an elastic bandage (such as an Ace wrap), will help decrease swelling. Don't wrap it too tightly, since this can cause more swelling below the affected area. Loosen the bandage if it gets too tight. Signs that the bandage is too tight include numbness, tingling, increased pain, coolness, or swelling in the area below the bandage. Talk to your doctor if you think you need to use a wrap for longer than 48 to 72 hours—a more serious problem may be present.
  • Elevate the injured or sore area on pillows while applying ice and anytime you are sitting or lying down. Try to keep the area at or above the level of your heart to help minimize swelling.
  • Remove rings, bracelets, watches, or any other jewelry from your hand and arm. It will be more difficult to remove the jewelry later if swelling increases.
  • Wear a sling for the first 48 hours after the injury if it makes you more comfortable and supports the injured area. If you feel you need to use a sling for more than 48 hours, discuss your symptoms with your doctor.
  • Gently massage or rub the area to relieve pain and encourage blood flow. Do not massage the injured area if it causes pain.
  • Do not smoke or use other tobacco products. Smoking slows healing because it decreases blood supply and delays tissue repair. For more information, see the topic Quitting Smoking.
Medicine you can buy without a prescription
Try a nonprescription medicine to help treat your fever or pain:

Talk to your child's doctor before switching back and forth between doses of acetaminophen and ibuprofen. When you switch between two medicines, there is a chance your child will get too much medicine.

Safety tips
Be sure to follow these safety tips when you use a nonprescription medicine:
  • Carefully read and follow all directions on the medicine bottle and box.
  • Do not take more than the recommended dose.
  • Do not take a medicine if you have had an allergic reaction to it in the past.
  • If you have been told to avoid a medicine, call your doctor before you take it.
  • If you are or could be pregnant, do not take any medicine other than acetaminophen unless your doctor has told you to.
  • Do not give aspirin to anyone younger than age 20 unless your doctor tells you to.

Symptoms to watch for during home treatment

Call your doctor if any of the following occur during home treatment:

  • Pain or swelling develops.
  • Symptoms of infection develop.
  • Numbness, tingling, or cool, pale skin develops.
  • Symptoms become more severe or more frequent.

Prevention

The following tips may prevent arm injuries.

General prevention tips

  • Wear your seat belt.
  • Don't carry objects that are too heavy.
  • Use a step stool. Do not stand on chairs or other unsteady objects.
  • Wear protective gear during sports or hobbies, such as roller-skating or soccer. Supportive splints, such as wrist guards, may reduce your risk of injury.
  • Warm up well and stretch before any activity. Stretch after exercise to keep hot muscles from shortening and cramping.
  • Use the correct techniques (movements) or positions during activities so that you do not strain your muscles.
  • Try not to overuse your arm doing repeated movements that can cause an injury. In your daily routines or when doing hobbies, think about how often you make repeated arm movements. Try to find other ways of using your arms.
  • Take lessons to learn how to do sports correctly. Have a trainer or person who is familiar with the sport check your gear to make sure it is right for your level of ability, body size, and body strength.
  • If you think that something you do at work is causing pain or soreness from overuse, call your human resources department for information on other ways of doing your job or to discuss equipment modifications or other job assignments.

Reduce falls

Keep your bones strong

  • Eat healthy foods such as milk, cheese, yogurt, and dark green, leafy vegetables like broccoli. For more information, see the topic Healthy Eating.
  • Exercise and stay active. Talk to your doctor about an exercise program that is right for you. Begin slowly, especially if you have been inactive. For more information, see the topic Fitness.
  • Don't drink more than 2 alcoholic drinks a day if you are a man, or 1 alcoholic drink a day if you are a woman. Drinking alcohol increases your chances of having weak bones (osteoporosis). It also increases your chances of falling.
  • Do not smoke or use other tobacco products. Smoking increases your chances of having osteoporosis. It also causes problems with the blood supply in your arms and slows healing. For more information, see the topic Quitting Smoking.

Possible abuse

Arm injuries such as bruises, burns, fractures, cuts, or punctures may be caused by abuse. Suspect possible abuse when an injury cannot be explained or does not match the explanation, repeated injuries occur, or the explanations for the cause of the injury change. You may be able to prevent further abuse by reporting it and seeking help.

Preparing For Your Appointment

To prepare for your appointment, see the topic Making the Most of Your Appointment.

You can help your doctor diagnose and treat your condition by being prepared to answer the following questions:

  • What are your main symptoms?
  • How long have you had your symptoms?
  • How and when did an injury occur? How was it treated?
  • Have you had any injuries in the past to the same area? Do you have any continuing problems because of the previous injury?
  • What activities, related to sports, work, or your lifestyle, make your symptoms better or worse?
  • Do you think that activities related to your job or hobbies caused your symptoms?
  • What home treatment measures have you tried? Did they help?
  • What nonprescription medicines have you tried? Did they help?
  • Were alcohol or illegal drugs involved in your injury?
  • Do you have any health risks?

Credits

By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer William H. Blahd, Jr., MD, FACEP - Emergency Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer H. Michael O'Connor, MD - Emergency Medicine
Last Revised June 27, 2012

This information does not replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise, Incorporated disclaims any warranty or liability for your use of this information. Your use of this information means that you agree to the Terms of Use. How this information was developed to help you make better health decisions.

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