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Colles Fracture Rehabilitation by Physiotherapy

Abraham Colles first described the fracture which bears his name in 1814 and it refers to a break of the final inch of the ulna and radius next to the wrist. A FOOSH (fall on the outstretched hand) is a very common injury and Colles' fracture is a very common consequence. Immobilisation in a Plaster of Paris or similar material for 5-6 weeks is the typical treatment to allow union of the fragments, followed by a rehabilitation period of one to three months. Immobilisation is minimised to prevent serious side effects due to the hand's functional importance, although a wrist brace can be used for the first week or so to reduce pain during activity.

Once the hand is released from the Plaster of Paris the physiotherapist will check the healing process is progressing normally. Palpation of the fractured area firmly should cause no significant tenderness or pain, hand colour should be normal and there should be no excessive swelling of the area. Muscle wasting is common after immobilisation but should not be too great. The ranges of movement of the limb, while restricted in some planes, should not be severely reduced in many planes. Pain should not be severe or widespread nor come on with all movements of the wrist and hand.

Initial treatment is to instruct the patient in range of motion exercises to be performed every two hours. For many fractures this is all that is required as the movements are easily restored with a few days' exercises, concentrating on the end ranges of movement. The shoulder and elbow are checked to make sure they are not limited as they may have been injured in the initial incident or kept very still by the patient whilst in plaster. The pronation and supination movements of forearm rotation are functionally very important, and the physiotherapist checks wrist extension and flexion and finger and thumb movements.

After the plaster comes off the wrist often feels vulnerable, partly because the plaster is seldom left on until the bone is entirely healed to prevent the onset of complications due to immobilisation. Physiotherapists may give the patient a futura type brace, a fabric brace with Velcro straps and a metal piece for the underside of the wrist to stiffen it. This is not meant to keep the wrist immobilised further but to support the wrist while the patient is performing functional activities and then to be removed for light activities and regular exercise performance.

If the ranges of motion do not improve as they should then the physiotherapist will consider using joint mobilisations to ease the movements. Accessory movements can be performed to the inferior radio-ulnar joint to help pronation and supination, and to the radiocarpal (wrist) and midcarpal joints, with the physiotherapist fixing one side of the joint as he or she moves the other side of the joint passively. This can be done gently or more vigorously at the end of range to push against the restrictions within the joint. Mobilisations can also be performed with the joint at the end of its available movement to give it the sliding and gliding movements it requires.

Returning steadily to normal use of the wrist and hand is the easiest and often the most successful way to regain forearm strength. In some cases more must be done to return the hand to normal if it is very weak or the person needs to return to a heavy manual job or has particular upper limb strength requirements for a sport or hobby. Instruction in practicing all the different hand movements against resistance can be accomplished in a hand class, where patients can use equipment designed to strengthen particular movements such as gripping, pulling, twisting, turning and to improve fine hand function.

Urgent treatment is indicated if the hand is extremely painful, tightly swollen and has poor movements, before a pain syndrome develops. At this stage medical review is important to make sure there are no complications with the fracture such as poor healing or lack of healing. Analgesia and contrast baths can help with the pain, desensitisation with the hypersensitive areas which can develop and massage and exercise with the swelling. Patient education is vital so they know they have to work hard and through the pain to rehabilitate their hand.

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