Broken bones are some of the most common traumatic injuries that require medical attention. Millions of bone fractures occur every year in the U.S. Over half of these fractures happen in adults over 65.
Even though these injuries are common, they can still wreak havoc on your life. Depending on the bone you break, you could experience significant disabilities that prevent you from carrying out your duties at work or home.
The musculoskeletal system gives your body its shape. It includes two types of tissues that perform different functions.
The soft tissues, which include ligaments, tendons, and muscles, hold the skeleton together and enable it to move. They also attach to the skeleton to help it work better. For example, cartilage covers the surfaces of the joints to cushion them and reduce wear.
The skeleton provides structure to your body. It includes bones containing minerals like calcium and phosphorus. As a result, it has a strong, rigid form. But this strength and rigidity come at a cost. Bones can flex a little, but they’ll snap with enough force.
Bones also have a porous texture. This arrangement optimizes strength without adding excessive weight and allows blood vessels to pass into the bones. Like all other cells in your body, bone cells need oxygen carried by the blood to live.
The blood vessels running through the skeleton also help the bones perform another key function: bone marrow in the center of your bones generates new blood cells. These new cells replace old cells filtered from your blood by your spleen.
Broken bones happen in three main ways:
Bending forces can cause a bone to snap. For example, imagine that you fall from a ladder during a workplace accident. If your arm were to get caught in the ladder, your entire body weight might bend one or more bones past their breaking point. As a result, your arm will snap into at least two pieces.
Crushing injuries happen when a great force is applied over a broad area. Crushing forces can shatter a bone into three or more pieces. For example, the weight of a car could crush and shatter your arm after you’ve been knocked over in a pedestrian accident.
Impact is probably the most common cause of broken bones. An impact can crack a bone by focusing a large amount of force on a small area.
For instance, you might suffer a skull fracture if something falls on your head in a construction accident. Similarly, the impact of the ground on your kneecap during a slip and fall accident could fracture your patella.
Doctors classify bone fractures using several criteria:
The displacement of a fracture refers to the alignment of the broken pieces. You can determine whether a fracture is displaced or nondisplaced by looking at an X-ray image of the broken bone.
If the ends of the broken pieces align with each other, you have a non-displaced fracture. Non-displaced fractures require less invasive treatment because the bone fragments are already in the correct position to heal. Your doctor will simply apply a cast to stabilize and protect the broken bone until it mends itself.
If the ends of the bone fragments are misaligned, you have a displaced fracture. In this situation, your doctor must realign the pieces so the broken ends match up with each other.
One option for realigning the bones is manual manipulation — in other words, the doctor can try to force the bones into place. The other is surgery.
A surgeon can make an incision to access the bone and place the fragments into alignment. Depending on the fracture, your doctor may secure the broken ends using plates and screws before applying a cast.
To determine whether a fracture is open or closed, you simply look at the fracture. A closed fracture occurs when the break produces no open wound. By definition, a non-displaced fracture is also a closed fracture.
An open fracture happens when the bones displace so far that the bone punctures your skin and causes an open wound. A displaced, open fracture is also called a “compound fracture.” It’s also possible for displaced fractures to move only a small amount and remain closed.
Open fractures have a higher risk of infection than closed fractures. Infections happen when bacteria or viruses enter the body. They reproduce and compete with your body’s cells for resources. Some pathogens can even destroy your tissues.
An infection from an open fracture can affect the soft tissues and skin near the open wound. Pathogens can also get into the bone, leading to a condition called osteomyelitis. The infected bone will become inflamed, and the cells may begin to die.
The pattern of the fracture results from the shape of the bone fragments after the break.
Some common fracture patterns include:
The fracture pattern can tell you about your expected treatment and healing time. For example, a comminuted fracture will likely require reconstructive surgery and up to a year of healing time.
The greatest losses due to broken bones come from the temporary or permanent disabilities they cause. When you break a bone, you may miss work for six to eight weeks while it heals. If you need physical therapy, you may be forced to take even more time away from work.
You may incur even greater losses when a fracture causes long-term complications. For example, if you suffer arthritis in a joint due to a misalignment of a nearby fracture, you may need to change jobs or even retire.