What is a fracture?

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

If you suspect you have a fracture, seek medical help immediately.

Most fractures are accompanied by intense pain when the initial injury occurs. It may become worse when you move or touch the injured area. In some cases, you may even pass out from the pain. You may also feel dizzy or chilled from shock.

Other potential symptoms of a fracture include:

  • a snap or grinding sound when the injury occurs
  • swelling, redness, and bruising in the injured area
  • difficulty supporting weight with the injured area
  • visible deformity in the injured area

In some cases, you may see broken bone poking through your skin.

Fractures can be classified as closed or open, as well as incomplete or complete.

Closed vs. open

A closed fracture is also called a simple fracture. In a closed fracture, the broken bone doesn’t break your skin.

An open fracture is also called a compound fracture. In an open fracture, the ends of the broken bone tear your skin. When your bone and other internal tissues are exposed, it puts you at higher risk of infection.

Incomplete vs. complete

In an incomplete fracture, your bone doesn’t break completely. In other words, it cracks without breaking all the way through. Types of incomplete fracture include:

  • hairline fracture, in which your bone is broken in a thin crack
  • greenstick fracture, in which your bone is broken on one side, while the other side is bent
  • buckle or torus fracture, in which your bone is broken on one side and a bump or raised buckle develops on the other side

In a complete fracture, your bone breaks completely. It’s snapped or crushed into two or more pieces. Types of complete fracture include:

  • single fracture, in which your bone is broken in one place into two pieces
  • comminuted fracture, in which your bone is broken or crushed into three or more pieces
  • compression fracture, in which your bone collapses under pressure
  • nondisplaced fracture, in which your bone breaks into pieces that stay in their normal alignment
  • displaced fracture, in which your bone breaks into pieces that move out of their normal alignment
  • segmental fracture, in which your bone is broken in two places in a way that leaves at least one segment floating and unattached

Incomplete fractures are more common in children. Their bones are softer than those of adults. As a result, they’re more likely to bend than break. Complete fractures can happen at any age.

You can develop a fracture when your bone is impacted with greater pressure or force than it can support. This force usually occurs suddenly or is very intense. The strength of the force determines the severity of the fracture.

Some common causes of fractures include:

  • falls
  • direct strikes to your body
  • traumatic events, such as car accidents or gunshot wounds
  • injuries from sports

Anyone can be experience a fracture. But you’re more likely to develop one if you have brittle bones, or low bone density. You’re more likely to develop brittle bones if you:

  • are older
  • have osteoporosis
  • have endocrine or intestinal disorders
  • are taking corticosteroids
  • are physically inactive
  • drink alcohol
  • smoke

If you suspect you have a fracture, get medical attention immediately. Your doctor will likely ask you about your symptoms and perform a visual examination of the injured area. They may ask you to move the area in certain ways to check for pain or other signs of injury.

If they think you may have a fracture, your doctor will likely order X-rays. According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, X-rays are the most common method of fracture diagnosis. They can create images of your bone and reveal breaks or other signs of damage. X-rays also help determine fracture type and location.

In some instances, your doctor may also order magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or computed tomography scans (CT or CAT scan) to examine your bones or surrounding tissues.

If you’re diagnosed with a fracture, the treatment plan will depend on its type and location.

In general, your doctor will try to put the broken bone pieces back into their proper positions and stabilize them as they heal. It’s important to keep pieces of broken bone immobile until they’re mended. During the healing process, new bone will form around the edges of the broken pieces. If they’re properly aligned and stabilized, the new bone will eventually connect the pieces.

Your doctor may use a cast to stabilize your broken bone. Your cast will likely be made from plaster or fiberglass. It will help keep the injured area stabilized and prevent broken bone pieces from moving while they heal.

In rare cases, you may need traction to stabilize the injured area. Traction stretches the muscles and tendons around your bone. Your doctor will administer it using a system of pulleys and weights positioned in a metal frame over your bed. This system will produce a gentle pulling motion that your doctor can use to stabilize the injured area.

For more complex or compound fractures, you may need surgery. Your doctor may use open reduction, and internal fixation or external fixation to keep your bones from moving.

In open reduction and internal fixation, your doctor will first reposition or “reduce” the pieces of broken bone into their normal alignment. Then they will connect or “fix” the broken bone. This occurs by using screws, metal plates, or both. In some cases, your doctor may insert rods through the center of your bone.

In external fixation, your doctor will put pins or screws into your bone above and below the fracture site. They will connect these pins or screws to a metal stabilizing bar positioned on the outside of your skin. The bar will hold your bone in place as it heals.

Your doctor may also prescribe medication to control pain, fight infection, or manage other symptoms or complications. After the initial treatment stages, they may recommend physical therapy or other strategies to help you regain normal use.

If you experience a fracture, its location and severity will help determine how long it takes to heal. Your age and medical history can also affect your recovery process. Certain medical conditions may impair your body’s ability to mend broken bones.

It may take several weeks, or sometimes months, for your fracture to heal. In most cases, the pain will subside before the healing process is complete. You will likely need to restrict movement of the injured area while it mends. You may not be able to participate in some of your normal activities. You may also have to make adjustments to your routine, until you are healed.

Once your fracture is healed, you may be able to return to your normal activities and routine. In some cases, you may need physical therapy. This will help you to regain your normal use of the injured area. Immobilizing part of your body for a long period of time can cause you to lose muscle strength and range of motion. Physical therapy can help you recover more fully.

To promote your recovery, follow your doctor’s medical instructions closely.

You can’t prevent all fractures. But you can work to keep your bones strong so they’ll be less susceptible to damage. To maintain your bone strength, consume a nutritious diet, including foods that are rich in calcium and vitamin D. It’s also important to exercise regularly. Weight-bearing exercises are particularly helpful for building and maintaining bone strength. Examples include walking, hiking, running, dancing, and weight training.