TRUE PERSONAL PATIENT STORY OF A WRIST FRACTURE SUFFERED WHILE SNOWBOARDING
"What to Expect When You're Expecting -- A Fixator"
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About five years ago I fell wham on the hardpack while snowboarding, and put out my hands to break my fall. My left wrist started to swell, so I figured it was sprained and went down to the lodge to put some ice on it. There my mom spied me with the ice, flipped out, and dragged me to a doctor. Good thing, since the x-rays revealed what the doctors call a compression fracture of the radius, otherwise known as a broken wrist (though I took to calling it a broken arm to make it seem more dramatic).
The doc decided that it was lined up pretty well already and we’d just cast it, but he warned me that I might
never be a pizza flipper. After eight weeks in a cast and a bout of physical therapy, it was pretty darned near
normal, but even now it still hurts when I lift heavy things palm up. So we need to add “furniture mover” to the
list of verboten careers.
X-ray of Displaced Wrist Fracture
I was pretty psyched after all that because the bones in the x-rays looked A-OK to me. But the doc at home,
a different doc this time, was cautious. And indeed x-rays taken five days after the fall showed the bones were
moving. He recommended surgery for my “fracture of the distal radius” so we could ensure the bones healed in the
proper position; it was my right wrist, he said, so he wanted to fix it as best as possible. Since then I’ve talked
to people who did not have surgery and wished they did, so I am very grateful I found a doc who knew what to look
for. His plan was to put in an external fixator, basically an adjustable bar held in place by two pins in the forearm
and two pins in the hand, to keep the bone long and in-line while it healed. Then he’d take it out and after some
physical therapy all should be back to normal. I checked out the doc and the procedure, and it all seemed on the
up-and-up, so decided to go with it.
X-ray after wrist fracture had been set with external fixator device in place
X-ray after wrist fracture had been set with external fixator device in place You have no idea how heavy your arm is until it’s completely numb. Or maybe it was the fixator and all the bandages, but it was pretty cumbersome and difficult to move around. So I hung out in a big chair, happily reading and missing a day of work, until the anesthesia wore off about eight hours later, when I had the distinct feeling that my arm was on fire. It was wild. I was dying to figure out exactly where the pins were, but I had no idea because the whole thing was blazing. The vicodin didn’t seem to make a difference, but it probably did, as I slept fine that night. My arm occasionally throbbed during the next couple of days, but it would almost always stop if I held it up, particularly if I lay down and elevated it. The hospital gives you a special pillow, a Carter pillow, that helps you sleep with your arm elevated, so I used that. The pillow didn’t have room for the pins, which hurt when they rested on the foam, but you can carve it out to make it more comfortable. (The pins stuck out from my arm about three inches!) So sleeping was okay. Walking-wise, it was generally uncomfortable having my arm hang at my side, because the pins in my hand, with all the fixator weight on them, would push downwards. So I got in the habit of walking with my arm up in the air. If you are lucky and have wise-cracking colleagues like I do, they may even start calling you Liberty (as in Statue Of).
After that first week, my arm didn’t hurt much. I was really careful with it, backing through doorways, trying
to keep it up when possible, and trying not to bang it, in particular staying out of crowded places. It did hurt
to rest it palm down on a flat surface, so I had pillows at work, at home, and in my car to rest it on. Once or
twice it got achy, but all I needed to do was rest and elevate it, and it would be okay. My fingers were more problematic.
They were very difficult to move in the beginning. The thumb and index finger were affected the most, but even
the other fingers took two or three weeks to even begin to feel normal. By the time I got the fixator off six weeks
later, those fingers were reasonably good, but my thumb and forefinger lacked strength and some flexibility. I
couldn’t, for example, stretch an elastic band or open a pair of scissors. I think that was the main difference
between the fixator and the cast – I don’t remember having such weak fingers when I had a cast. The cast was also
more comfortable in some ways – it didn’t hurt to rest it on a table, for example. On the other hand it itched
like crazy and even started to smell (yook), so overall I’m not sure which I prefer.