What is a fracture?

A fracture, also known as a broken bone, is a condition that changes the contour (shape) of the bone. Fractures often occur when there is a high force or impact put on a bone.

Fractures are common--there are millions in the United States every year--and can be caused by a number of things. People break bones in sports injuries, car accidents, falls, or from osteoporosis (bone weakening due to aging). Although most fractures are caused by trauma, they can be “pathologic” (caused by an underlying disease such as cancer or severe osteoporosis). There are more than one million “fragility” fractures every year that are due to osteoporosis. Medical care is needed immediately after a bone is fractured.

What are the types of fractures?

There are many types of fractures:

  • A fracture can be closed (the skin is not broken) or open, which is also called a compound fracture (the skin is open and the risk of infection significant).
  • Some fractures are displaced (there is a gap between the two ends of the bone). These often require surgery.
  • A partial fracture is an incomplete break of a bone.
  • A complete fracture is a complete break of a bone, causing it to be separated into two or more pieces.
  • A stress fracture, sometimes called a “hairline fracture,” is like a crack and may be difficult to see with regular X-rays.

These are the different types of partial, complete, open, and closed fractures:

  • Transverse: the break is in a straight line across the bone.
  • Spiral: the break spirals around the bone.
  • Oblique: the break is diagonal across the bone.
  • Compression: the bone is crushed and flattens in appearance.
  • Comminuted: the bone fragments into several different pieces.
  • Avulsion: a fragment of bone is pulled off, often by a tendon or ligament.
  • Impacted: the bones are driven together.

What are the causes of a fracture?

Fractures occur when a force that is stronger than the bone itself is applied to a bone. Fractures can occur from falls, trauma, and a direct blow to a bone. Repetitive forces caused by running can cause a fracture, as well. These running fractures are often called stress fractures; these are small cracks in the bone. Osteoporosis may also cause a fracture in older people.

What are the signs and symptoms of fractures throughout the body?

  • Arm: Pain, swelling, abnormal bend, difficulty using or moving arm, warmth, bruising, or redness
  • Elbow: Pain, swelling, bruising, stiffness, a ‘pop’ noise at the time of fracture, or visible deformity
  • Wrist: Pain, swelling, decreased use of hand and wrist, a crooked or deformed appearance, and unable to hold a grip
  • Hand: Pain, swelling, tenderness to touch, stiffness, and weakness. Deformities are not always common.
  • Finger: Pain, swelling, unable to move the finger, a shortened finger, or a depressed knuckle
  • Leg: Severe pain, swelling, tenderness, bruising, obvious deformity, and the inability to walk
  • Knee: Pain, swelling, bruising, inability to straighten the knee and the inability to walk
  • Ankle: Severe pain, swelling, tenderness to touch, bruising, deformity, and the inability to walk
  • Foot: Severe pain, swelling, bruising, numbness in toes and foot, decreased range of motion, inability to walk comfortably, and visible deformity
  • Toe: Pain, swelling, discoloration, and bruising. You should be able to walk, but not comfortably.

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