Fracture (Broken Bone)

Written by Anna Zernone Giorgi
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD, MBA on August 26, 2013

What Is a Fracture?

A fracture is a broken bone. It can range from a thin crack to a complete break. A bone can fracture crosswise, lengthwise, in several places, or into many pieces. Typically, a bone becomes fractured when it is impacted by more force or pressure than it can support.

If you suspect a fracture, seek medical help immediately.

Types of Fractures

There are two types of fractures: open and closed.

In an open fracture, the ends of the broken bone tear the skin. When the bone and skin are exposed, they are at risk of infection. This type of fracture is also called a compound fracture.

In a closed fracture, the broken bone does not break the skin. This type of fracture is also called a simple fracture. But these fractures can be just as dangerous as open fractures. Both types require medical attention.

Certain types of fractures are more common in children because their bones are softer. Their bones are more likely to bend than break. Children are more likely to experience incomplete fractures—fractures in which the bone does not break completely. Types of incomplete fractures include:

  • greenstick fracture: The bone is broken on one side, while the other side is bent.
  • buckle or torus fracture: The bone is broken on one, and this causes a bump or raised buckle on the other side.

Complete fractures can occur at any age. They can be classified by the way the bone is affected. A broken bone can be described as a:

  • nondisplaced fracture: The bone is broken into pieces that can be aligned in place.
  • displaced fracture: The bone is broken into pieces that don’t align.
  • hairline fracture: The bone is broken in a thin crack.
  • single fracture: The bone is broken only in one place.
  • compression fracture: The bone is crushed by.
  • comminuted fracture: The bone is crushed or broken into three or more pieces.
  • segmental fracture: The bone is broken in two places, which leaves at least one bone segment floating and unattached.

What Causes a Fracture?

A fracture is a possible result of an impact of greater pressure or force than a bone can support. Typically, the force occurs suddenly or is very intense. The force weakens the bone and breaks it. The strength of the force determines the severity of the break. Some common causes of fractures are:

  • falls
  • direct strikes to the body
  • traumatic events such as auto accidents or gunshots
  • injuries during sports
  • overuse, particularly in sports

Who Is at Risk for a Fracture?

Anyone can be affected by a fracture. But people with brittle bones (less bone density) are more vulnerable. These factors contribute to brittle bones:

  • osteoporosis
  • advanced age
  • endocrine and intestinal disorders
  • corticosteroids
  • physical inactivity
  • smoking
  • drinking alcohol

What Are the Symptoms of a Fracture?

Most fractures are accompanied by intense pain when the injury occurs. This discomfort can become worse when the injured area is moved or touched. Some people may pass out from the initial pain of a fracture. Others may feel dizzy or chilled from shock. Common symptoms that accompany a fracture also include:

  • the sound of a snap or grinding when the injury occurs
  • swelling, redness, and bruising in the injured area
  • an injured area that appears deformed or has a portion of the bone pushing through the skin

Diagnosing a Fracture

After a visual examination, your doctor will likely use an X-ray to diagnose a fracture. An X-ray is the most common way to diagnose a fracture (AAOS).

An X-ray can provide a comprehensive image of the bone and reveal any breaks. With an X-ray, your physician can determine a fracture’s type and exact location. In some instances, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or computed tomography scan (CT or CAT scan) may be used for further examination.

How Is a Fracture Treated?

The goal of treating a fracture is to put broken bone pieces back into their proper position and allow them to heal. It is important to keep the pieces immobile until healing is complete. When a bone heals, new bone forms around the edges of the broken pieces, connecting them.

Treatment also emphasizes preventing complications. Medications may be used to control pain during the healing process.

Treatment for a fracture depends on its location and type.

Most fractures can be treated with a cast. Casts are typically made of plaster or fiberglass. A cast will prevent the bone pieces from moving while they heal.

In some cases, traction may be necessary. Traction stretches the muscles and tendons around the broken bone. It is administered with a system of pulleys and weights. The system produces a gentle, pulling motion. The mechanism is positioned in a metal frame over your bed.

For more complex or compound fractures, surgery may be necessary. A surgical procedure called open reduction and internal fixation may be used. First, the bones are repositioned (or reduced) into their normal alignment. The bones are then connected (or fixed), often with metal plates and/or screws. In some cases, rods are inserted through the center of the bone.

External fixation also can be used to keep broken bones from moving. Pins or screws are placed into the bone above and below the fracture site. These pins or screws are then connected to a metal stabilizing bar outside the skin. The bar holds the bones in place to heal.

What Is the Outlook for a Fracture?

It may take several weeks, or sometimes months, for a fracture to heal. In most cases, pain will subside before the healing is complete. The fracture’s location and severity will determine individual recovery rates. The presence of other injuries or medical conditions may affect recovery. If you are recovering from a fracture, it is important to closely follow medical instructions.

After a fracture, you can expect to have restricted movement of the injured area. This will be necessary until healing is complete. When the fracture is healed, you may be able to return to normal movement. But immobilizing a part of the body for a long time can cause a loss of muscle strength. You may require physical therapy to help regain normal use of the injured area.

Preventing a Fracture

You can’t prevent all fractures, but you can work to keep your bones strong so they will be less susceptible to damage. To maintain bone strength, consume a healthy diet and exercise regularly (AAOS). Foods rich in calcium and vitamin D can promote strong bones. Weight-bearing exercises, in particular, can also be effective, according to the AAOS. 

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