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Minor fracture or big break? The basics of bone injuries

From sports injuries to falls to DIY projects gone awry, broken bones are a painful reality for millions of Americans each year. They’re so common, in fact, that the average person will experience two in their lifetime.

Bone injuries happen when force applied against a bone is stronger than the bone can tolerate. And while there are varying degrees of bone breaks, they always require diagnosis and treatment from a medical professional.

What’s the difference between a fracture and a break?

When it comes to bone injuries, this is one of the most common questions in the orthopedic world. The short answer is — there is no difference.

Confused? You’re not alone. People talk about breaks and fractures all the time and often think one is more serious than the other. But the terms are interchangeable. Simply put, a fracture is a medical term for a broken bone.

 

What are the different types of fractures?

There are several different types of bone fractures, which can occur in any part of the body. The severity of a fracture depends on the type of break, where on the body it happens and other factors, such as age.

While bones can break in a variety of ways, they fall into these categories:

  • Partial fracture: The break doesn’t go through the bone.
  • Complete fracture: The bone completely breaks into two or more pieces. This injury often requires surgery to fix.
  • Stress (hairline) fracture. A small crack or severe bruise occurs within the bone. This injury is often caused by repetitive stress or force. It is most common among athletes and people who have osteoporosis or other conditions that may weaken the bone.
  • Simple (closed) fracture: The bone sustains a break, but the bone does not go through the skin. Symptoms of simple fractures can run the gamut, from a sensation that feels like a strained muscle to visible deformity and severe pain. As a result, they can be difficult to diagnosis without an X-ray.
  • Compound (open) fracture: The bone breaks through the skin. Compound fractures tend to be obvious, especially if bone is visible or protruding through the skin, and surgery is usually required to fix them.
  • Displaced fracture. The bone breaks in two places and the bones no longer line up straight. Surgery is typically required to close the gap and realign the bone.
  • Compression fracture: Small breaks or cracks occur in the bones that make up the spinal column. A compression fracture is typically caused by loss of bone mass that occurs as part of aging.

Because they are still growing, children are at risk of some unique fractures. For example:

  • A greenstick fracture happens when a bone bends or bows but doesn’t break all the way through.
  • A buckle fracture results from compression when two bones are driven into each other.
  • A growth-plate fracture occurs at the joint and can result in shorter bone length.

 

What causes a fracture?

Bones are strong and resilient. But under enough force, they can crack and break.

Some of the leading causes of fractures include:

  • Physical trauma, such as falls, injury or a direct blow or kick to the body.
  • Overuse and repetitive motions, such as running long distances or repeatedly jumping up and down.
  • Certain health conditions, including osteoporosis and cancer in the bones.
  • Bones typically weaken with age, which can increase the risk of them breaking.

 

What are the symptoms of a fracture?

Symptoms of a fracture can vary, but the most common signs are:

  • Severe pain that worsens with movement or under pressure.
  • Swelling, bruising or redness.
  • Noticeable bump, bend or twist at the injury site.
  • Snapping or grinding where the injury happened.
  • Difficulty moving or using the injured area.

 

How long does it take for a fracture to heal?

Healing time for a fracture varies depending on the severity, location of the break, and a person’s age and general health.

With prompt and proper care, most health care providers estimate it takes between six to eight weeks to recover from a broken bone.

 

How are fractures diagnosed and treated?

Your health care provider will examine the affected area and order an X-ray to see a two-dimensional image of the break. If more detailed imaging is needed to diagnose a fracture, additional diagnostic tests may include a bone scan, CT scan or MRI.

Once diagnosed, most fractures are treated with a cast or splint to mobilize and straighten the bone.

In some cases, fractures may require traction to stretch the muscles and tendons around the broken bone. This process aligns the bones and promotes healing.

For more severe breaks, surgery may be recommended. Stainless steel screws, plates or frames may be used to stabilize the injured bone.

 

How can I prevent fractures?

Most fractures are caused by a fall or accident. But there are steps you can take to keep bones strong and reduce your risk of fractures:

  • Eat a healthy diet rich in calcium and vitamin D.
  • Fine-tune your workout. To prevent stress fractures, make exercise adjustments gradually, check your form and ensure you have proper footwear.
  • Do weight-bearing exercises, such as walking, hiking, jogging, stair climbing, etc.
  • Avoid tobacco use. Tobacco and nicotine can weaken bones and slow the healing process.
  • Talk with a health care provider about your risk for osteoporosis.

Our Indigo Health providers will help determine your risk of fractures, work with you to develop lifestyle habits to prevent fractures and take care of all your essential care needs.

 

When should I see a health care provider?

You should always see a medical provider if you suspect you have a fracture, especially if you’re experiencing pain that doesn’t improve after 24-48 hours of icing, taking over-the-counter pain relievers and resting the injured area. Often, the only way to detect or confirm a minor fracture is with an X-ray of the affected area.

At Indigo Health, our refreshingly friendly providers are available every day from 8 am to 8 pm to assess your injury and provide a treatment plan to manage your symptoms. And if a fracture is suspected, all Indigo locations offer onsite digital X-ray services. We'll even send you on your way with a pair of crutches if needed.

If your injury requires a higher level of care, we’ll refer you to a specialist to ensure you get the treatment you need to get back on your feet or back in the swing of things.

If your fracture is more severe, you should call 911 or head to the nearest emergency room. Always seek emergency medical care if:

  • You suspect a bone is broken in the spine (back, neck) or skull.
  • A bone has punctured the skin and/or is causing heavy bleeding.
  • The affected area is visibly deformed.
  • The extremity of an injured limb has poor circulation and is turning blue.

While you’re waiting for emergency care, keep the person still to avoid further injury. Never attempt to wash an open wound caused by a bone break or attempt to realign a broken bone.

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