Bone Fractures

Overview

What is a bone fracture?

When you break a bone, healthcare providers call it a bone fracture. This break changes the shape of the bone. These breaks may happen straight across a bone or along its length. A fracture can split a bone in two or leave it in several pieces.

What types of bone fractures are there?

Healthcare providers can usually categorize a bone fracture based on its features. The categories include:

  • Closed or open fractures: If the injury doesn’t break open the skin, it’s called a closed fracture. If the skin does open, it’s called an open fracture or compound fracture.
  • Complete fractures: The break goes completely through the bone, separating it in two.
  • Displaced fractures: A gap forms where the bone breaks. Often, this injury requires surgery to fix.
  • Partial fractures: The break doesn’t go all the way through the bone.
  • Stress fractures: The bone gets a crack in it, which is sometimes tough to find with imaging.

A healthcare provider may add extra terms to describe partial, complete, open and closed fractures. These terms include:

  • Avulsion: A tendon or ligament pulls part of the bone off. Ligaments connect bones to other bones, while tendons anchor muscles to bones.
  • Comminuted: The bone shatters into several different pieces.
  • Compression: The bone gets crushed or flattened.
  • Impacted: Bones get driven together.
  • Oblique: The break goes diagonally across the bone.
  • Spiral: The fracture spirals around the bone.
  • Transverse: The break goes in a straight line across the bone.

Who gets bone fractures?

Anyone can break a bone, with certain situations making it more likely. Many people break bones from falls, car accidents and sports injuries. Medical conditions such as osteoporosis can also play a role. Osteoporosis causes at least one million fractures each year. Healthcare providers call these injuries fragility fractures.

Symptoms and Causes

What causes broken bones?

While bones are very strong, they can break. Most often, breaks happen because the bone runs into a stronger force (getting thrown forward in a car crash, say). Also, repetitive forces – like from running — can fracture a bone. Healthcare providers call these types of injuries stress fractures.

Another reason for fractures is osteoporosis, which weakens bones as you age. It’s a serious condition, so older adults should speak to a healthcare provider about their risk.

What symptoms do bone fractures have?

The symptoms of a fracture depend on which bone breaks. For example, you’ll likely know right away if you have a problem with your arm, leg or finger. If you’re not sure, consider these possible symptoms:

  • Difficulty using the limb.
  • Noticeable and unusual bump, bend or twist.
  • Severe pain.
  • Swelling.

Diagnosis and Tests

How do you test for a bone fracture?

To diagnose a broken bone, your healthcare provider will examine the injury. You will also likely have one or more imaging tests. These tests can include:

  • X-rays: This tool produces a two-dimensional picture of the break. Healthcare providers often turn to this imaging first.
  • Bone scan: Healthcare providers use a bone scan to find fractures that don’t show up on an X-ray. This scan takes longer — usually two visits four hours apart — but it can help find some fractures.
  • CT scan: A CT scan uses computers and X-rays to create detailed slices or cross-sections of the bone.
  • MRI: A MRI creates very detailed images using strong magnetic fields. MRI is often used to diagnose a stress fracture.

Management and Treatment

What broken bone treatments are there?

A healthcare provider can usually treat a broken bone with a cast or splint. Casts wrap the break with hard protection, while splints protect just one side. Both supports keep the bone immobilized (no movement) and straighten it. The bone grows back together and heals.

With smaller bones such as fingers and toes, you won’t get a cast. Your healthcare provider might wrap the injury before using a splint.

Occasionally, your healthcare provider might need to put you in traction. This treatment uses pulleys and weights to stretch the muscles and tendons around the broken bone. Traction aligns the bone to promote healing.

For some breaks, your healthcare provider may recommend surgery. Your treatment may use stainless-steel screws, plates and fixators, or frames that hold the bone steady.

Prevention

How can I prevent broken bones?

You can prevent many fractures by avoiding falls, staying in shape and getting the right vitamins and minerals.

Avoiding falls

Following certain tips can help you stay upright indoors and out.

Indoors:

  • Balance: Consider balance training and physical therapy if your body feels off. Use a cane or walker if you need to.
  • Clutter removal: Keep your rooms picked up. Make sure wires and cords don’t cross walkways.
  • Lights: Make sure your rooms all have good lighting.
  • Rugs: Use skid-free mats under any rugs you need.
  • Shoes: Wear shoes – not just socks – when you’re home.
  • Vision: Check your eyesight with an eye exam by an optometrist.

Outdoors:

  • Attention: Pay attention to your surroundings. Watch for anything that could turn into an obstacle or cause you to trip.
  • Balance: Use a cane or walker and wear rubber-soled shoes for a better grip.
  • Curbs: Take care at curbs. Watch your footing as you step up.
  • Lights: Leave a porch light on if you will come home after dark.
  • Weather: Keep sidewalks, driveways and steps free of ice and snow. Use salt to help keep them clear.

Staying fit

Weight-bearing exercise such as walking helps keep bones healthy and strong. Exercises that build or maintain muscles can also improve balance.

Eating right

To promote bone strength, watch your diet. Make sure to get 1200 to 1500 milligrams (mg) of calcium each day. Also get 800 to 1000 international units (IU) of vitamin D. Certain foods provide good sources of these nutrients:

  • Almonds.
  • Beans such as chickpeas, black beans and tofu.
  • Dairy such as milk and yogurt.
  • Eggs.
  • Vegetables such as broccoli, spinach and kale.
  • Whole grains such as brown rice, oats and rye.

Outlook / Prognosis

How long does it take a fracture to heal?

Healing time for a broken bone varies from person to person and depends on the severity of the injury. For example, a broken leg will take longer than a broken arm or broken wrist. Also, you tend to heal more slowly as you age. On average, healthcare providers say it takes six to eight weeks to recover from a broken bone.

Are there complications with bone fractures?

As with many injuries, a fractured bone can lead to complications. These can include:

  • Blood clots: Blockage of a blood vessel that can break free and move through the body.
  • Cast-wearing complications: Can include pressure ulcers (sores) and joint stiffness.
  • Compartment syndrome: Bleeding or swelling within the muscles surrounding the fracture.
  • Hemarthrosis: Bleeding into the joint, causing it to swell.

Living With

When should someone see a healthcare provider for a broken bone?

If you suspect you may have broken a bone, see a healthcare provider right away. If you can’t get to urgent care or an emergency room on your own, call 911 for help.

See your healthcare provider if your treated fracture doesn’t seem to be healing. Also, see a provider if the area around the fracture swells, turns red or hurts. These signs could mean healing has hit a snag.

A note from Cleveland Clinic

Even though bones are strong, they can break. A bone fracture is painful, and you’ll want to get help with it right away. In most cases, you’ll need treatment to return to normal activity. Talk to your healthcare provider if you’re concerned about osteoporosis.

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 11/30/2020.

References

  • American Bone Health. Fracture Risk Factors. Accessed 11/29/20.
  • Amin S, et al. Trends in Fracture Incidence: A Population-Based Study Over 20 Years. Journal of Bone and Mineral Research. 2014 Mar; 29 (3): 581-589. Accessed 11/29/20.
  • MedlinePlus. Fractures. Accessed 11/29/20.
  • NIH Osteoporosis and Related Bone Disease National Resource Center. Once Is Enough: A Guide to Preventing Future Fractures. Accessed 11/29/20.
  • NIH Osteoporosis and Related Bone Disease National Resource Center. Preventing Falls and Related Fractures. Accessed 11/29/20.
  • OrthoInfo. Fractures (Broken Bones). Accessed 11/29/20.
  • United States Bone and Joint Initiative. The Burden of Musculoskeletal Diseases in the United States (BMUS). Third ed. Rosemont, IL; 2014. Accessed 11/29/20.

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Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy

Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy