Fractures (Broken Bones)

What is a fracture?

A fracture is a broken bone. It is one of the most common orthopaedic injuries in the United States, affecting more than 7 million people each year. The average person can expect to have two fractures in his or her lifetime.

Fractures can occur in any bone in the body, including the skull. They range from hairline fractures (a thin break in the bone) to displaced fractures (a bone that’s snapped in two). The severity depends on the strength and direction of the force and the particular bone involved. It’s important to seek medical care immediately for any fracture. If not treated promptly, some fractures can have dangerous complications, including damage to nearby organs, blood vessels and nerves.

Types of fractures.

How does a fracture occur?

The most common causes of fracture include:

  • Trauma from a fall, car accident, or sports injury
  • Osteoporosis, cancer and other diseases that weaken bones
  • Repetitive motion and overuse

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms of a fracture include pain, swelling, tenderness, bruising, deformity and loss of function in the injured area. In compound (open) fractures, the bone will protrude from the skin.

How is a fracture diagnosed?

In addition to a physical exam and patient history, your doctor can use specific tests, including X-rays, MRIs and CT scans to diagnose the severity and exact location of a fracture.

What is the treatment?

It's important to treat fractures as soon as possible for proper healing. Treatment depends on the site and severity of the injury and may include:

  • Immobilization. A splint, sling, brace or cast is often used to support and protect the broken bone. The length of time needed varies by patient and demand, but can range from three to 10 weeks.
  • Medication. Over-the-counter non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs can reduce pain and inflammation. If the pain is severe, prescription medication may be necessary.
  • Rehabilitation. In most cases, it’s important to move the affected area to minimize stiffness. Once the cast or brace is removed, physical therapy is necessary to restore muscle strength, joint motion and flexibility.
  • Surgery. Some fractures require surgery to realign and stabilize the broken bone. Fixation devices such as wires, plates, nails or screws may be implanted to maintain proper alignment of the bones during healing. If the fracture is especially severe, a bone graft may be used to help speed the healing process.

Broken bones take about four to eight weeks to heal, depending on the age and health of the patient and the type of break. Children’s bones tend to heal more quickly.