Your bones are tough stuff — but even tough stuff can break. Like a wooden pencil, bones will bend under strain. But if the pressure is too much, or too sudden, bones can snap.
When a bone breaks it is called a fracture. There's more than one way to break or fracture a bone. A break can be anything from a hairline fracture (a thin break in the bone) to a bone that's snapped in two pieces like a broken tree branch.
What Happens When a Bone Breaks
It hurts to break a bone. It's different for everyone, but the pain is often like a deep ache. Some people may experience sharper pain — especially with an open fracture. And if the fracture is small, a person may not feel much pain at all. Sometimes, people won't even be able to tell that they broke a bone.
Breaking a bone is a big shock to the whole body. It's normal for a person to receive strong messages from parts of the body that aren't anywhere close to the fracture. Someone may feel dizzy, woozy, or chilly from the shock. Some people pass out until their bodies have time to adjust to all the signals they're getting. And others don't feel any pain right away because of the shock of the injury.
If you think you or someone else has broken a bone, the most important things to do are to:
- stay calm
- make sure the person who is hurt is as comfortable as possible
- tell an adult
- if there are no adults around, call 911 or the emergency number in your area
The worst thing for a broken bone is to move it. This will hurt the person and it can make the injury worse. In the case of a broken arm or leg, cushion or support the surrounding area with towels or pillows.
One important tip: If you're not sure what bone is broken or you think the neck or back is broken, do not try to move the injured person. Wait until a trained medical professional has arrived.
Different Types of Fractures
A doctor might be able to tell whether a bone is broken simply by looking at the injured area. But the doctor will order an X-ray to confirm the fracture and determine what type it is. Getting an X-ray to look at the broken bone won't take long.
However, a fracture through the growing part of the bone (called the growth plate) may not show up on X-ray. If this type of fracture is suspected, the doctor will treat it even if the X-ray doesn't show a break.
Kids' bones are more likely to bend than break completely because they're softer. Fracture types that are more common in kids include:
- buckle or torus fracture: one side of the bone bends, raising a little buckle, without breaking the other side
- greenstick fracture: a partial fracture in which one side of the bone is broken and the other side bends (this fracture kind of looks like what would happen if you tried to break a green stick that's just been cut from a tree).
Mature bones are more likely to break completely. A stronger force will also result in a complete fracture of younger bones. A complete fracture may be a:
- closed fracture: a fracture that doesn't break the skin
- open (or compound) fracture: a fracture in which the ends of the broken bone break through the skin (these have an increased risk of infection)
- non-displaced fracture: a fracture in which the pieces on either side of the break line up
- displaced fracture: a fracture in which the pieces on either side of the break are out of line (which might require surgery to make sure the bones are properly aligned before casting)
Other common fracture terms include:
- hairline fracture: a thin break in the bone
- single fracture: the bone is broken in one place
- segmental: the bone is broken in two or more places in the same bone
- comminuted fracture: the bone is broken into more than two pieces or crushed
Treating a Broken Bone
To treat the broken bone, the doctor needs to know which kind of fracture it is. That's where X-rays come in — they give doctors a map of fractures so that they can set the bones back in their normal position.
After your bone has been set, the next step is usually putting on a cast to keep the bone in place for the 1 to 2 months it will take for the break to mend. Casts are made of bandages soaked in plaster, which harden to a tough shell. Sometimes casts are made of fiberglass or plastic — and some are even waterproof.
With breaks in larger bones or when a bone breaks in more than two pieces, the doctor may need to put in a metal pin — or pins — to help set it. For this operation, you'll receive anesthesia so you'll be asleep and not feel any pain. When your bone has healed, the doctor will remove the pin or pins.
How Broken Bones Heal
Your bones are natural healers. At the location of the fracture, your bones will produce lots of new cells and tiny blood vessels that rebuild the bone. These cells cover both ends of the broken part of the bone and close up the break until it's as good as new.
When the Cast Comes Off
Once the cast is off, the injured area will probably look and feel pretty weird. The body part that was in a cast might look strange at first. The skin might be pale, dry, or flaky. Body hair might look darker and the body part itself might look smaller because you might have lost some muscle while it was healing.
Don't worry — this is all temporary and you'll be back to normal soon. In some cases, your doctor might suggest you do special exercises to improve your strength and flexibility. You'll want to go slow and ask if there are any activities you should avoid. If you want to return to a sport, ask the doctor how soon you'll be able to do it.
How can you be sure you don't break any more bones? Accidents happen, but you can often prevent injuries by wearing safety helmets, pads, and the right protective gear for your activity or sport.
It's also a smart idea to do what you can to build strong bones:
- Get a lot of physical activity, especially jumping and running.
- Feed your bones the calcium and vitamin D they need to stay strong. That means getting your share of milk and other calcium-rich foods and drinks, such as broccoli and calcium-fortified orange juice.