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Fracture - Broken Bone - Diagnosis and Treatment

What is a broken or fractured bone and how is it treated?


Updated May 18, 2014

Male nurse supporting man's leg wrapped in bandages
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A broken bone, or a bone fracture, is a term used to describe a crack or a break in a bone. A fracture can be complete or partial. If the broken bone punctures the skin, it is called an open or compound fracture.

What Causes a Fracture
Fractures commonly occur from a high impact or trauma to the bone, although some diseases can weaken bones and cause them to break. Very small cracks in the bone called stress fractures can be caused by overuse. The most common causes include:

  • High impact sports injuries
  • Traumatic, forceful and unnatural movements
  • Overuse - prolonged long-distance walking or running
  • Falls
  • Accidents
  • Osteoporosis
  • Tumors growing near the bone

The Symptoms of a Fracture

  • Out-of-place or misshapen limb or joint
  • Swelling, bruising or bleeding
  • Intense pain
  • Numbness and tingling
  • Limited mobility or inability to move a limb

Bone Fractures Types and Descriptions

  • Simple — the bone is broken in one place
  • Closed — the skin over the broken bone has not been pierced
  • Comminuted — the broken bone has three or more bone fragments
  • Open or Compound — the skin over the fracture has been pierced and the broken bone is exposed
  • Undisplaced — the broken bone pieces are aligned
  • Displaced — the broken bone pieces are not aligned
  • Transverse fracture - the fracture is at a right angle to the long axis of the bone
  • Greenstick fracture - the fracture is on one side of the bone, causing a bend on the other side of the bone

Immediate Treatment for a Fracture
If you suspect you have a fractured bone, you should seek immediate emergency medical care. X-rays are often used to located ans assess fractures. The broken pieces may need to be put back in place and then immobilized until the bones can heal as new bone forms around the break.

You may need to wear a cast or splint, or possibly have surgery to put in plates, pins or screws to keep the bone in place.
Also See: Share a Photo of Your Cast

Bone Healing
Immediately after a bone fracture the body forms a protective blood clot and callus or fibrous tissue to protect the injured area. New bone cells start forming at the edges of fracture site and grow toward each other. Over time the fracture closes completely and the bony callus is absorbed.

Treatment for Fractures
The type of treatment will depend on the kind of fracture and the specific bones involved.

  • Casting — After the broken bones have been manipulated back into their proper positions, a plaster or fiberglass cast is applied to keep the bones from moving while they heal.
  • External fixation — Pins or wires are set into the bone through the skin above and below the fracture. These are connected to a ring or a bar outside the skin that holds the pins in place. After the bones have healed, the pins are removed.
  • Internal fixation — In a surgical procedure, metal rods, wires, or screws are inserted in the bone fragments to keep them together.

Rehabilitation for Fractures
Fractures usually heal in about four to six weeks, but some can take several months depending on the extent of the injury and how well you follow rehab instructions.

Casts or braces are often removed before complete healing to prevent joint stiffness. Pain usually decreases before the fracture is solid enough to handle a complete return to sports, so working with a therapist on a rehab protocol is important to avoid further injury.

Once the bone is healed and strong, it's safe to begin muscle building. During the disuse, the muscles will have atrophied and be extremely weak. Tendons and ligaments may also be stiff from a lack of use. Rehabilitation involves flexibility, balance and strengthening exercises and a gradually increase of activity. Physical therapy is the preferred method of safely getting back into sports.

Also See: Guidelines for Returning to Sports After an Injury .

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