Is It a Fracture or a Break? How to Determine What's Happened to Your Bones
A broken bone is far worse than a fractured bone – or, at least that’s what many people think. While a broken bone might sound worse than a fracture, these two injuries can be quite different from what you’re imagining in your mind.
And, like most people, you’d probably be surprised to learn that breaks and fractures are actually the same thing. The words can even be used interchangeably to describe these types of bone injuries, as both mean that normal bone structure has been damaged.
Wondering what else is the same – or different – about bone breaks and fractures? Here’s what you should know before one happens.
Why Bones Break
Fractures, or breaks, occur when there’s high impact on a bone.
People can break bones in a number of different scenarios such as sports injuries, car accidents, and falls. Those suffering from osteoporosis, which is a condition that weakens bones during the aging process, are also at risk for fractures.
Repetitive stress can also cause damage over time. If you bend a paperclip back and forth repeatedly, eventually that paperclip will snap. The same goes for stress fractures, which are often seen in long-distance runners and basketball players.
There are many different types of fractures, ranging from mild to severe. Here are some of the most common types:
- Partial Fracture: An incomplete bone break.
- Complete Fracture: A complete break of the bone into two or more pieces.
- Compression: Bone is crushed and flattened.
- Compound Fracture: Skin is torn open upon impact to the bone, meaning the risk of infection is quite high.
- Displaced Fracture: A gap is created between the two broken pieces of bone, which often requires surgery to heal.
- Impacted Fracture: An impact causes bones to be driven together.
Breaks can happen at various angles, and they rarely occur in a single straight line. The fracture can happen diagonally across the bone or even spiral around it. Each break can be unique in its own way – and that can affect how it’s treated and healed.
Signs of a Broken Bone
There’s a common misconception about how to determine whether or not a bone is broken: if it’s broken, you won’t be able to move that body part. It’s also thought that a break or fracture results in immediate pain.
But this isn’t always the case. Some people are able to move perfectly well after breaking a bone, and others are ignorant to the injury until some time after it occurs.
If, however, you notice any of the following signs, be sure to seek the advice of a doctor right away:
- Deformity in an arm or leg
- Bruising or swelling over a bone
- Pain in the injured area that gets worse with applied pressure
- Loss of function or decreased range of motion in the injured area
- Inability to bear weight on the leg, ankle or foot
- Bone protruding from the skin on an open fracture
Crepitus is another sign you may have broken a bone. It’s similar to the crunchy feeling you get when walking on gravel. When you feel this crunchiness under your skin, it’s most likely because broken bits of bone are rubbing against each other.
If you suspect a bone fracture, it’s not necessary to call an ambulance or go to the emergency room. A visit to your primary care physician is usually fine. Bone fractures can be diagnosed in many ways – and the most common is with an X-ray.
Other tests are typically not needed if the X-ray shows an obvious fracture. If the injury is difficult to see, however, an MRI may be required. Magnetic resonance imaging produces a more detailed picture, and is effective for diagnosing stress fractures and very small breaks.
Treating a Fractured Bone
A broken bone is usually treated with a cast or splint. The best way for a bone to heal is to keep it immobilized. By preventing movement, you’ll encourage the bone to straighten out as your body works to fuse the bone back together.
If the injured bone is very small, like a finger or toe, then a cast likely won’t be needed. Simply wrapping the area is often enough to prevent the bone from moving.
In some cases, the doctor will have to perform a fracture reduction. This means the bone must be repositioned – and this is necessary if it’s been dislodged from its correct position. The patient will be given some type of anesthesia, and the doctor will reposition the bone. It can then be held in place with a cast or splint to begin the healing process.
Casts themselves do not heal broken bones. Rather, they prevent the bone from moving so the body can naturally heal itself. Casts must be protected from water, or the healing process could be compromised.
If you have several bone fractures, you may require surgery. This is especially common for hip fractures, as treatments that require the hip to remain immobilized usually aren’t successful. Bone fracture repair is a surgery that fixes the broken bone using metal pins, screws, rods, or plates.
Regardless of whether treatment involves casting or surgery, complications can occur if the bone doesn’t heal properly. These complications include:
- Casting problems: Joint stiffness and ulcers from pressure placed on the bone
- Blood clots: Blockage of blood in the blood vessel, which can break off and move through the body
- Haemarthrosis: Bleeding into a joint space, causing the joint to swell
- Compartment syndrome: Raised pressure within a closed part of the body, cutting off blood supply to muscles and nerves
Avoiding these complications, if possible, can help your body heal quickly and naturally.
Although broken bones can happen in a car accident or competitive sports, falling is the main cause. Whether you’ve slipped down a flight of stairs or tripped on a ledge by the garden, your home and workplace are full of hazards.
There are simple ways, however, to prevent fractures. They mainly involve taking safety precautions to avoid falls day to day.
If you’re worried about breaking a bone indoors, you’ll want to:
- Get rid of cords and wires that lie across common walking areas, like hallways and bedrooms.
- Keep your floors free of clutter by putting belongings in the closet or on shelves.
- If using rugs, make sure they are skid-free.
- Wear indoor shoes, not just socks, when at home.
- Use a walker or cane if necessary.
- Use a nightlight in dimly lit areas to improve visibility if you have to get up in the middle of the night.
If you’re worried about breaking a bone outdoors, you’ll want to:
- Always wear rubber-soled shoes.
- Use salt on icy driveways, steps and sidewalks.
- Leave a porch light on if you’ll be returning home after dark.
- Be aware of your surroundings.
- Take extra precautions when approaching a curb.
Fractures are also caused by weakened bones as we age. The best way to ensure strong bones is to get enough calcium and Vitamin D. Those who are 50 or older should get about 1,200 mg of calcium per day, and at least 800 IU of Vitamin D per day. Milk, brown rice and spinach are just some of the foods rich in these essential nutrients.
If you’re suffering from a broken bone, your healing process may be different from someone else’s. Healing time will often depend on the location of the fracture, as some areas take longer to mend than others.
Generally, younger people tend to heal much quicker than older people. But the average process will typically take 6 to 8 weeks. By getting plenty of rest and ensuring the bone stays immobilized, you’ll be back to your daily activities in no time.
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