How to Read Wrist Xrays

Have a System for Reading Wrist Xrays

  • Always verify patient, laterality, and quality of xrays
  • When presenting to someone (such as in a fracture conference), say what views you’re looking at (AP, Lateral, Oblique)
    • If you aren’t sure, just say 3 views of a right wrist… for example
  • Skeletally mature or immature?
  • Look for obvious injuries and comment on them. Use the most straightforward and correct answer.
    • Don’t jump into the details right away
  • After you have established the obvious. Go back and systematically go through the images in each view

AP Wrist Xray: Assess the quality

  • AP view: Work your way proximal to distal
    • The long axes of the third metacarpal, capitate, and radius should fall in a straight line indicating the wrist was in a neutral position
    • The pisiform and triquetrum overlap
    • In a Posterior to Anterior (PA) view the ulnar styloid is on the ulnar-most border (left image below), in the AP view the ulnar styloid is closer to the middle of the ulnar head (right side)
    • Look at cortices of the radius and ulna, when outlining them, also look at the medulla for any abnormalities

Distal Radius Angles

  • Review the distal radius angles (Remember: 22-11-11, volar tilt is half of the radial inclination)
    • Radial inclination (normal 22 degrees)
    • Volar tilt (11 degrees) – aka. palmar tilt
    • Radial length (11mm)


Gilula Lines

  • Look at the Gilula lines 1, 2, and 3 in that order (See picture below that show Gilula lines)
  • Look at the space in-between each carpal bone to look for intercarpal widening (widening between carpal bones), start looking proximal then work distal


  • Gilula lines are just imaginary lines that carpal bones make that can help you tell if there is something out of place. Any break in any of the lines means that something is off.

Distal Radioulnar Joint (DRUJ)

  • Look at the distal radioulnar joint (DRUJ), widening of the DRUJ can communicate instability
  • Look at the radiocarpal joint, 2/3rds of the lunate should articulate with the distal radius

(Llyas JAAOS, 2008).

  • The left AP wrist is normal. The right shows <2/3rd of lunate articulating with the distal radius which means there is ulnar subluxation and likely a ligamentous injury, you can always compare to the other wrist.

Ulnar Variance

  • Assess the ulnar variance
    • Ulnar variance is measured by drawing a transverse line at the level of the lunate fossa and a second transverse line at the level of the ulnar head and determining the distance between the two lines. (JBJS, 2006). The forearm must be in a neutral position (not pronated or supinated).
      • Ulnar variance changes by up to a millimeter as the forearm moves from full supination to full pronation; therefore, the standard neutral position should be used
    • The image below shows ulnar positivity
      • The yellow horizontal line closer to the bottom of the picture is at the level of the lunate fossa (ulnar volar corner of the distal radius). The top line is at the level of the ulnar head. The ulnar head is more distal than the lunate fossa, therefore it is ulnar-positive.

(Radiopaedia, 2022)

Lateral Xray: Assess the Quality

  • The palmar border of the pisiform should overlap with the middle third of the scaphoid

(Boyer, 2001)


  • The image above is close to being a perfect lateral, the palmer border of the pisiform is close to overlapping with the middle third of the scaphoid
  • Outline the radius and ulna then look at the medullary canals
  • Assess DRUJ. Ulna subluxation dorsally is characteristic of DRUJ instability
    • This is why it is important to have a good lateral based on pisiform overlap with the scaphoid

Capitate, Lunate, and Radius in Line on the Lateral

  • Check that the distal radius, lunate, and capitate are in line on the lateral (yellow line in the image)
  • Then look at radius-lunate articulation (the moon-shaped bone is the lunate sitting on the radius), then lunate-capitate articulation (the capitate is sitting in the cup of the lunate)
    • The outline in red is the lunate, the capitate is outlined in green. Always look and make sure the capitate is sitting in the cup of the lunate.

(Ryan Christie on Twitter)

  • Here is an example of when the capitate is no longer sitting in the cup of the lunate, and what the looks like on the AP and Lateral wrist xrays.
  • This is a dorsal perilunate dislocation (notice that the lunate remained in its position articulating with the distal radius, but the capitate is dislocated dorsally)
  • If the lunate was fully dislocated, this would be a “lunate dislocation”, not a perilunate dislocation


Scaphoid Position on Lateral

  • Assess scaphoid position
    • Look at the scapholunate angle, normal should be 30-60 degrees (the lunate should follow the scaphoid if the scapholunate (SL) ligament is intact, example: when the scaphoid flexes with wrist flexion, so should the lunate)>70 degrees where the scaphoid flexes and the lunate extends (cup points towards the dorsal wrist), this means that the scapholunate ligament is injured/not functional)

(Chim, 2018)

  • Here is an example of a scapholunate dissociation where the scapholunate angle is >70 and the lunate no longer follows the scaphoid, most easily viewed on the lateral. There is also a slight widening between the scaphoid and lunate on the AP view (the space does not match the space between the lunate and triquetrum for example).

(Na, Lee, 2016)

Oblique View

  • Assess quality by looking for ~1/3 overlap of the ulnar head with the radius
  • Oblique distal radius xrays are great for assessing radial styloid fractures and seeing a full broadside scaphoid view (which makes it easier to see scaphoid fractures)
  • Helpful for seeing triquetral fractures and hamate fractures (hamate fracture depicted below)


  • Review from proximal to distal outline of radius and ulna, then carpal bones
  • Outline the metacarpals
  • Review the soft tissue: Proximal to distal

Classifying Distal Radius Fractures

  • From our experience, there is no one perfect classification system, we recommend basing your descriptions of distal radius fractures on whether they appear stable versus unstable. This requires knowing your predictors of instability (La Fontaine’s Criteria) and knowing your Operative Criteria.
  • The classification systems below are good to be familiar with as you may be asked about them, but in practice, we have not seen them commonly used.

List of Distal Radius Fracture Classification Systems

  • Frykman
    • based on joint involvement (radiocarpal and/or radioulnar) +/- ulnar styloid fracture, does not guide treatment


(Uni of Washington)

  • Fernandez
    • based on the mechanism of injury, guides treatment


  • Melone Classification
    • divides intra-articular fractures into 4 types based on displacement, does not guide treatment


  • AO Classification
    • Comprehensive, mainly used for research purposes

(AO Distal Radius Fracture Classification: Global Perspective on Observer Agreement)

La Fontaine’s Criteria (Predictors of Instability)

  • Dorsal angulation > 20 degrees
  • Initial radial shortening >5mm
  • Associated ulnar fracture
  • Dorsal comminution >50%
  • Palmar comminution
  • Intraarticular comminution
  • Osteoporosis (Age >60 years of age was used in the original criteria)

Of these factors, radial shortening, followed by dorsal comminution, is the most predictive of instability. 

Distal Radius Operative Criteria

(Commit these to memory):

  • Open fractures
  • Associated neurovascular or tendon injury
  • Associated fracture of the carpal bones
  • Associated acute carpal tunnel syndrome
  • High-energy injuries
  • Radiographic findings indicating instability (see La Fontaine’s Criteria:
    • Volar or dorsal comminution
    • Displaced intra-articular fractures >2mm
    • Radial shortening >5mm
  • Associated ulnar fracture (not ulnar styloid)
  • Severe osteoporosis (often depends on displacement)
  • Articular margin fractures (dorsal and volar Barton’s fractures, aka. Volar or Dorsal sheer fractures)
    • Requires an intact posterior cortex for volar Barton/sheer fractures, or volar cortex for dorsal sheer fractures
  • Severely comminuted and displaced extra-articular fractures
  • Die-punch fractures
    • Volar ulnar corner fractures
  • Progressive loss of volar tilt and radial length following closed reduction and casting

Case example:

How would you read this xray?


  • Answer: “This is an AP and Lateral of a left wrist in a skeletally mature individual showing an extra-articular distal radius fracture. (Generally, it is good to avoid eponyms, like Colles Fracture).
  • Another descriptor would be to say, “A dorsally angulated extraarticular distal radius fracture with associated ulnar styloid fracture”.
  • If you are in a fracture conference, that is all you may have time to say, but you should be looking back over the image using a system. Work from proximal to distal, outline the bones, look in the medullary canals, visualize important/imaginary lines to help you pick up on abnormalities, and don’t forget about the surrounding soft tissue!

This Post Has One Comment

  1. gunarsih

    is there a difference in age factors in the scapholunate angle ? TQ

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