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Overview of Broken Bones

(Fractures)

By

The Manual's Editorial Staff

Last full review/revision Apr 2019
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All broken bones are considered fractures. It doesn't matter whether it's just a little crack or a big break with lots of pieces.

  • Broken bones hurt a lot and cause swelling

  • Your bone may look bent or out of place

  • Broken bones sometimes damage nerves or blood vessels near the break

  • Doctors diagnose broken bones using x-rays, but sometimes a CT scan or MRI is helpful

  • Doctors move broken bones back into place and hold them there with a splint, cast, or sometimes metal pins, screws, and plates

Go to the nearest emergency department if you get hurt and have a lot of pain or swelling or if you can’t move or use the body part you injured.

What are the different types of fractures?

Doctors use lots of terms to describe different broken bones. The terms have to do with things like:

  • How are the pieces of broken bone lined up?

  • Is there a hole in your skin and is the bone sticking out?

  • Does the break go into one of your joints?

The pieces of a broken bone are sometimes lined up pretty straight. But usually they're bent, twisted, pulled apart, or jammed together. Sometimes your bone is broken into several small pieces.

An open fracture is when the sharp end of a broken bone has poked through your skin. Often, the bone goes back in and there's just a little cut. But sometimes the bone is sticking out. An open fracture can let germs and dirt get into the broken bone and cause a bone infection. Bone infections keep your fracture from healing.

A break that goes into a joint can heal with a rough edge that can cause permanent joint pain and stiffness.

Some Types of Fractures

Some Types of Fractures

What causes broken bones?

You can break a bone if:

  • Your bone is bent or twisted too far, such as from a fall or sports injury

  • Something hits your bone really hard, such as a heavy object or the impact from a car crash

  • You have constant, repeated impact on a bone, such as from running—this is called a stress fracture

What are the symptoms of a broken bone?

Symptoms of fractures include:

  • Pain when you touch, put weight on, or use your injured body part

  • Swelling

  • Trouble using the injured part normally (for example, if you have an ankle fracture, you may not be able to stand on your foot)

  • Sometimes numbness or tingling if a nerve is injured

The broken bone bleeds. This can cause a bruise after a day or so.

How can doctors tell if one of my bones is broken?

Doctors do:

Sometimes, doctors also do a CT scan or an MRI.

How do doctors treat broken bones?

Broken bones heal best when the two ends are touching and lined up straight. If they're not touching and lined up, doctors need to move them so that they are. This is called "reducing a fracture," or "setting the bone."

If your fracture is pushing on a blood vessel or nerve, or if it's an open fracture, doctors reduce it right away. Otherwise, doctors often wait a few days to let the swelling go down. Until then, they'll put on a splint and give you pain medicine.

After reducing the fracture, doctors need to hold the broken pieces in place so they don't move until they're done healing. To hold them in place, doctors may use

  • Splints

  • Casts

  • Surgery

Splints and casts are made of hard material such as plaster or fiberglass. Doctors first put on some soft padding so the plaster or fiberglass doesn't scrape your skin. In a cast, the hard material wraps all the way around your arm or leg. In a splint, the hard material goes only partway around.

During surgery for a broken bone, doctors may use:

  • A long metal rod put inside the hollow center of your bones

  • Screws and metal plates attached directly to the broken bones

  • A metal frame on the outside of your leg or arm that's pinned to your broken bones (an external fixator)

If you have an open fracture, you may also need surgery to clean dirt and germs off the ends of the broken bones.

External Fixator

External Fixator

How do I take care of a cast?

If you have a cast, you should do the following:

  • Keep your cast dry while bathing—protect it with a waterproof cast cover or plastic bag (use rubber bands to seal the opening)

  • If the cast gets damp, dry it with a hair dryer—if it gets too wet your doctor may need to replace it

  • Elevate the cast when you can to lessen swelling

  • To protect your skin, put tape on any rough cast edges

  • Clean the area around your cast every day

  • Never put objects inside your cast

Call your doctor if you get a fever or if your cast:

  • Feels very tight

  • Causes pain, numbness, or weakness in the injured body part

  • Causes redness or soreness

  • Has a bad smell

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