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Limb injuries

5-minute read

What is a limb injury?

A limb injury is any injury to a limb, either a leg or arm, or to the toes and fingers.

Limb injuries include:

  • broken bones (cracked or fractured bones, for example a broken arm)
  • dislocations (when a bone has been moved or dislodged, for example a dislocated shoulder)
  • sprains (injuries to ligaments, for example a sprained ankle)
  • strains (injuries to muscles, for example a strained thigh)
  • nail injuries (injuries to toenails and fingernails, for example a stubbed toe)
  • bruises (coloured marks caused by bleeding in or under the skin due to an impact)

What symptoms are related to limb injuries?

Signs of limb injury can vary, depending on the type of injury.

The symptoms of a broken bone or dislocation are severe pain, restricted or no movement in the affected limb, change of shape of the limb, discolouration, tenderness and swelling.

The symptoms of a sprain are swelling, pain, bruising to the area and loss of mobility.

The symptoms of a strain are sharp, sudden pain in the affected area and loss of power.

If you have a limb injury, you may also have damaged nerves or blood vessels in the area. Signs of nerve damage include pins and needles, numbness, and loss of movement. Signs of damage to blood vessels include coldness and paleness.

In some cases, signs of limb injury may indicate that there is something else wrong. For example, pain felt in the shoulder can be a sign of a heart problem; pain in the hip can indicate a compressed nerve in the back, and painful feet can be a sign of nerve damage (neuropathy).

CHECK YOUR SYMPTOMS — Use our limb injury Symptom Checker and find out if you need to seek medical help.

What causes limb injuries?

There are many different causes of limb injuries. These range from sports to manual labour to simple trips and falls.

Serious limb injuries, such as broken bones and dislocations, can be caused by contact with a large force (such as a blow to the body) or a heavy fall.

More minor limb injuries can result when a muscle or ligament moves beyond its normal range (for example when you roll over on your ankle), or when there is an impact on the body (for example stubbing your toe or slamming your finger in a door).

How are limb injuries treated?

If you have a serious injury, seek medical attention. Cover any bleeding with a clean cloth or bandage, and apply consistent pressure to stop the bleeding. You may need an x-ray to find out the damage caused from the injury.

If you have a fracture, immobilise the limb by placing a padded splint along the injured limb. Support the limb while you are bandaging it. Keep the splint in place by passing the bandages above and below the break to prevent movement. Tie the bandages firmly and away from the injured side. Make sure the bandages aren’t too tight. If it’s a leg injury, immobilise the foot and ankle as well. Fractures are treated by immobilising the limb, often with a cast, and sometimes surgery.

If you have a dislocation, rest and support the limb using soft padding and bandages. If it’s a shoulder injury, support the arm as comfortably as possible. If it’s a wrist injury, support the wrist in a sling. Put a cold pack directly over the injured joint and seek medical help. If the circulation is affected in the limb (if it becomes numb, pale or cold to touch, call an ambulance on triple zero (000). Dislocations are treated by putting the joint back in place, followed by several weeks’ rest. Don’t try to do this yourself, always seek medical attention for a dislocation.

If you have a strain or sprain, follow the ‘RICE’ method to relieve pain and reduce swelling.

  • Rest the injured area.
  • Ice the area for 20 minutes, using a covered icepack or bag of frozen peas. Repeat every two to three hours for up to 2 to 3 days.
  • Compress the area with a bandage (but if the pain gets worse, loosen the bandage).
  • Elevate the limb. Sit or lie down, and prop the limb up (for example with pillows), so it is above the level of the heart.

Nail injuries should be washed then covered with a sterile, non-stick dressing. See a doctor if there is a lot of blood under the nail, or if there are signs of infection like pain, swelling, redness or pus.

If you are in pain, you may take simple painkillers (for example paracetamol, ibuprofen).

When should I see a doctor?

See a doctor if:

  • you think you may have a broken bone or dislocation (DO NOT attempt to straighten or move a bone that appears out of place or misshapen)
  • you think you may have nerve or blood vessel damage
  • your injury does not get better in time

Can limb injuries be prevented?

The best way to prevent limb injury is to keep safe at home, school or work, when driving and when playing sport. You can find out more about preventing injury at:

Are there complications of limb injuries?

Limb injuries can take a long time to heal. Sometimes they can happen again, and you may need surgery to help stabilise a bone or joint. You may need physiotherapy and a period of rehabilitation to recover from a limb injury.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: August 2019


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