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.
Healthcare providers can usually categorize a bone fracture based on its features. The categories include:
A healthcare provider may add extra terms to describe partial, complete, open and closed fractures. These terms include:
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.
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.
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:
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:
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.
You can prevent many fractures by avoiding falls, staying in shape and getting the right vitamins and minerals.
Following certain tips can help you stay upright indoors and out.
Weight-bearing exercise such as walking helps keep bones healthy and strong. Exercises that build or maintain muscles can also improve balance.
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:
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.
As with many injuries, a fractured bone can lead to complications. These can include:
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.