Bone Fractures: Types, Diagnosis, and Treatment

A bone fracture is another way of saying a broken bone, as in a broken arm or leg. Healthcare providers identify different types of breaks using X-rays and other diagnostic tests. They also have different treatment options depending on the severity of the break and which bone is affected. Read more below.

Types of Fractures

Sometimes, bones crack straight across and split into two or more pieces. Sometimes, the bone remains in place, and other times it bends at the break and even punctures the skin or other tissues. 

A closed fracture is a break where the skin isn’t punctured, while an open fracture breaks the skin. Open fractures are also called compound fractures. 

Other types of fractures include:

  • Complete – the bone breaks completely through, separating into two pieces
  • Displaced – a gap forms at the fracture line and could require surgery to fix
  • Partial – the break doesn’t go all the way through the bone
  • Stress – the bone cracks, which isn’t always visible on an X-ray

Doctors also have other descriptive terms to label a specific type of break or how it occurred:

  • Avulsion – a tendon or ligament pulls part of the bone out of place
  • Comminuted – the bone shatters into multiple pieces
  • Compression – the bone is flattened or crushed
  • Impacted – the pieces of bone are driven together
  • Oblique – the break is diagonal across the bone
  • Spiral – the break spirals around the bone, often occurring when a limb is twisted
  • Transverse – the bone breaks across in a straight line

Knowing the type of fracture helps the doctor determine the best treatment and sometimes gives a clue to how it happened.

Emergency medicine treats more than just trauma to the body. Read more about our emergency services here.

How Bones Break

A bone breaks when it meets a force stronger than it can withstand. If you are in a car crash, your body can be thrown against a hard surface and cause one or more bones to crack. Falling from a great height onto an arm can fracture it. 

Fractures that occur due to osteoporosis, a common condition of age, are also known as fragility fractures because the bones have become fragile with loss of tissue. Osteoporosis causes at least two million fractures a year. 

Bones can also break due to traumatic events, direct blows, child abuse, and repetitive force injuries. Runners can suffer repetitive force fractures from running on hard surfaces. 

Symptoms of a Bone Fracture

The symptoms differ depending on which bone breaks and how it breaks. Pain is the most common symptom, often throbbing or radiating along the limb where the bone breaks. 

Other symptoms include:

  • Difficulty or inability to use the limb
  • A noticeable or unusual bend, bump, or twist
  • Bruising or bleeding
  • Swelling 
  • Limb deformity
  • Numbness or tingling

Parents and caregivers might notice a small child refuses to put weight on an arm or leg after an accident. The child might not want or be able to move the limb at all, and you might be able to see the deformity in the limb. If you notice your child doing this, take them to be examined by a medical professional.

Diagnosing Bone Fractures

X-rays are the most common diagnostic test for bone fractures. They show a two-dimensional image of the break, although some bone fractures are challenging to spot. 

Another diagnostic tool is a bone scan. Bone scans are handy for finding fractures that don’t show on an X-ray. Bone scans take longer than an X-ray imaging but are helpful in many situations.

A CT scan is a type of X-ray that is used to create detailed cross-sections of the bone to help determine the kind of break and exactly where it’s located. An MRI produces detailed images using magnetic fields and is used to diagnose stress fractures, which are difficult to see on the typical X-ray.

Should you visit an emergency room or urgent care facility? What is the difference? Read more here.

Treating and Managing Broken or Fractured Bones

Treatment depends on the type of break and which bones are broken.

Most people are familiar with a cast or splint. A cast wraps around the injured limb completely, providing support and rigid protection to the limb. A splint protects only one side of a broken bone. 

Both casts and splints function to immobilize the bone and hold it straight as it heals. Small bones such as fingers and toes are often wrapped with a small splint, and a broken pinky toe might be taped to the toe next to it.

Some bone fractures require traction. With traction, a doctor uses pulleys and weights to stretch the muscles and tendons around the break, aligning the bone properly for healing. 

External fixation is a more serious treatment where the bone fracture is held in place with metal pins or screws in the bone above and below the fracture. The pins and screws are then connected to a metal plate outside the leg, holding the bone in the best position to heal. External fixation may be used until the patient can tolerate surgery if other tissue injuries are present.

Preventing Bone Fractures

The best way to avoid bone fractures for yourself and your kids is to ensure safety in your home and daily activities. Remove clutter from pathways where people walk and place skid-free mats under area rugs. Keep good lighting in your home, and make sure you check your vision regularly. Balance training and physical therapy can also help people avoid bone fractures.

When you’re outside, pay attention to your surroundings. Use rubber-soled shoes to grip the ground’s surface and watch while stepping over curbs. Leave the porch light on if you come home after dark, and keep your sidewalks, steps, and driveway free of ice and snow.

Keeping fit also helps you avoid bone fractures. Building and maintaining muscle also improves balance. When participating in sports or other activities, wear properly fitting protective gear like shoulder, elbow, and knee pads, wrist and shin guards, and a helmet. 

Go to the Nearest Emergency Room 

If you think you have a broken bone, go to the closest emergency room. If you can’t drive yourself, call 911. If you are with someone who may have a fracture, don’t move the person until the bone is stabilized or wait for emergency personnel. 

Family First ER has skilled healthcare providers who can help diagnose and treat bone fractures of all types. If you need assistance, don’t hesitate to visit us. We will get you on the road to recovery.