Fractures

What is a fracture?

A fracture is a partial or complete break in the bone. When a fracture happens, it’s classified as either open or closed:

  • Open fracture (also called compound fracture): The bone pokes through the skin and can be seen, or a deep wound exposes the bone through the skin.
  • Closed fracture (also called simple fracture). The bone is broken, but the skin is intact.

Fractures have a variety of names. Here is a listing of the common types that may happen:

  • Greenstick. This is an incomplete fracture. A portion of the bone is broken, causing the other side to bend.
  • Transverse. The break is in a straight line across the bone.
  • Spiral. The break spirals around the bone; common in a twisting injury.
  • Oblique. The break is diagonal across the bone
  • Compression. The bone is crushed. This causes the broken bone to be wider or flatter in appearance.
  • Comminuted. The bone has broken into three or more pieces and fragments are present at the fracture site.
  • Segmental. The same bone is fractured in two places, so there is a “floating” piece of bone.

What are the symptoms of a fracture?

The following are the most common symptoms of a fracture. However, each person may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms of a broken or fractured bone may include:

  • Sudden pain
  • Trouble using or moving the injured area or nearby joints
  • Swelling
  • Obvious deformity
  • Warmth, bruising, or redness

The symptoms of a broken bone may resemble other medical conditions or problems. Always see a healthcare provider for a diagnosis.

How is a fracture diagnosed?

In addition to a complete medical history (including asking how the injury happened) and physical exam, tests used for a fracture may include the following:

  • X-ray. A diagnostic test which uses invisible electromagnetic energy beams to make pictures of internal tissues, bones, and organs on film.
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). An imaging test that uses large magnets, radiofrequencies, and a computer to produce detailed pictures of structures within the body.
  • Computed tomography scan (also called a CT or CAT scan). This is an imaging test that uses X-rays and a computer to make detailed images of the body. A CT scan shows details of the bones, muscles, fat, and organs.

CT scan

How is a fracture treated?

The goal of treatment is to put the pieces of bone back in place, control the pain, give the bone time to heal, prevent complications, and restore normal use of the fractured area.

Treatment may include:

  • Splint or cast. This immobilizes the injured area to keep the bone in alignment. It protects the injured area from motion or use while the bone heals.
  • Medicine. This may be needed to control pain.
  • Traction. Traction is the use of a steady pulling action to stretch certain parts of the body in a certain direction. Traction often uses pulleys, strings, weights, and a metal frame attached over or on the bed. The purpose of traction is to stretch the muscles and tendons around the broken bone to help the bone ends to align and heal.
  • Surgery. Surgery may be needed to put certain types of broken bones back into place. Occasionally, internal fixation (metal rods or pins located inside the bone) or external fixation devices (metal rods or pins located outside of the body) are used to hold the bone fragments in place while they heal.
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Fractures can take months to heal as broken bones “knit” back together when new bone is formed between the broken parts.