What Is an Orthopedic Splint?

Synthia L. Rose

An orthopedic splint is a brace used after an injury to the musculoskeletal system to keep fractured bones, dislocated bones and broken bones immobile during the healing process. Splints can be used underneath casts or alone. In addition to supporting damaged bones, an orthopedic splint can be used for injuries of tissues attached to bones, such as muscles, ligaments or tendons. Occasionally, splints support joints afflicted with arthritis. Orthopedic splints can be fashioned by using a stiff material as the foundation of the orthopedic splint and cloth, ropes or tape to hold the splint in place.

An orthopedic healthcare provider looking at the X-ray of a patient with joint problems.
An orthopedic healthcare provider looking at the X-ray of a patient with joint problems.

Many families purchase ready-made, foldable splints to keep in first aid kits. Physicians, however, typically provide the most suitable splints by using radiographs and other medical imaging to determine the exact nature of the trauma and in what location the splint would be most effective. An orthopedic splint supplied by a hospital or doctor is often custom-fit for the patient’s body and specific of injury.

A finger in a splint.
A finger in a splint.

Polymer, plaster and fiberglass are the most common materials used to make orthopedic splints. A plaster orthopedic splint is highly malleable and capable of conforming to the body; it is often used to set large extremities, such as legs or arms. Splints made of fiberglass cannot be molded to the body for a custom fit but are considered one of the strongest materials for splints. In addition to strength, a fiberglass orthopedic splint has the benefit of keeping injuries dry by pulling moisture away from the injury through the process of wicking. Pre-made wraps made out of stretchable material, such as elastic, can accommodate swelling and are the most common reinforcement used with any of these splints.

More than a dozen different types of splints exist; they are named after the type of injury they support. Thumb injuries are braced by a splint called a spica. An orthopedic splint used to support injured fingers or palms is called a radial and ulnar splint. For heel and ankle trauma, stirrup splints or posterior ankle splints are used.

A long arm posterior splint is a type of orthopedic splint used on forearm or elbow injuries. Double sugar tongs are also used on the forearm but include an extra tie that keeps the arm from moving; this is for more severe arm injuries. For wrist sprains and hand injuries, an orthopedic splint known as a forearm volar splint can be used.

Injured people using splints must daily inspect them to ensure the splints are not harming the injuries. Pressure sores can occur when splints are too tight. Skin burns are another danger but limited to plaster splints that are applied wet and then allowed to cure over hours until they set.

Splints can be used underneath casts or alone.
Splints can be used underneath casts or alone.

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