Broken Arm (Upper) - Causes

Authored by Dr Jacqueline Payne, 16 May 2017

Patient is a certified member of
The Information Standard

Reviewed by:
Dr Adrian Bonsall, 16 May 2017

The upper arm has one bone, called the humerus. At the top it meets the shoulder blade (scapula) to form the shoulder joint. At the bottom, with the two bones of the lower arm (radius and ulna), it forms the elbow joint.

Humerus Front

Breaking one or both of your forearm bones, particularly at the wrist, is fairly common; breaking your upper arm bone is much less common. If you do break your upper arm bone (humerus), it is most likely to break at the top - 6 times out of 10 this is where the upper arm bone breaks. It is called a proximal humerus fracture. The next most common place for the upper arm bone to break is at the elbow. When it breaks here it is called a distal fracture (supracondylar or transcondylar), an intercondylar fracture or a condylar fracture, depending on where exactly the bone has broken. The least common place for the upper arm bone to break is somewhere in the middle - this is called a shaft fracture.

If you break your upper arm it is usually following a bad fall on to your elbow or shoulder or by something hitting it hard, such as being knocked down by a car. Falling on to your elbow or shoulder is likely to cause a broken upper arm (fractured humerus). You can also break your upper arm by falling on to your hand when your arm is straight, especially if it is out to your side.

If you are elderly, it is possible you have developed 'thinning' of the bones (osteoporosis). This makes it more likely that you will break your arm following a relatively minor fall or accident. Occasionally you can break your upper arm because you have developed a type of cancer that is affecting the bone and has made it so weak that it has cracked. This is called a pathological fracture.

In very small children their upper arm, particularly the shaft, can be broken by someone abusing them, by hitting or throwing them.

Young people who break the top of their upper arm (proximal fracture) are more likely than older people to have also dislocated their shoulder. This is because the amount of force needed to break a young person's arm is large and therefore it is more likely to have done other damage too.

Further reading and references

  • Kim SH, Szabo RM, Marder RA; Epidemiology of humerus fractures in the United States: nationwide emergency department sample, 2008. Arthritis Care Res (Hoboken). 2012 Mar64(3):407-14. doi: 10.1002/acr.21563.

  • Jordan RW, Modi CS; A review of management options for proximal humeral fractures. Open Orthop J. 2014 Jun 278:148-56. doi: 10.2174/1874325001408010148. eCollection 2014.

  • Wang Y, Zhuo Q, Tang P, et al; Surgical interventions for treating distal humeral fractures in adults. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2013 Jan 311:CD009890. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD009890.pub2.

  • Clement ND; Management of Humeral Shaft Fractures Non-Operative Versus Operative. Arch Trauma Res. 2015 Jun 20

  • Pandya NK, Baldwin KD, Wolfgruber H, et al; Humerus fractures in the pediatric population: an algorithm to identify abuse. J Pediatr Orthop B. 2010 Nov19(6):535-41. doi: 10.1097/BPB.0b013e32833ce424.

  • Harding P, Rasekaba T, Smirneos L, et al; Early mobilisation for elbow fractures in adults. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2011 Jun 15(6):CD008130. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD008130.pub2.

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