Understanding Fractures

What is a fracture?

Simply put, fracture means “broken bone.” A fracture varies in severity – ranging from a slight crack to a completely-broken bone. A fracture can occur lengthwise, crosswise, in different places, or in very many pieces. Most fractures occur when a bone is subjected to pressure or force much more that it can bear. If you think that you have a fracture, please see your healthcare expert without delay.

fractures
Photo Credit: Center for Orthopaedic Reconstruction & Excellence

How do I know that I have a fracture?

Fractures are usually accompanied by severe pain, especially during the initial stage. The pain may worsen when you touch or move the affected area. Sometimes, a fractured patient may even pass out due to the pain. Chills or dizziness from shock may also be experienced.

Other symptoms of a fracture include:

  • A grinding or snapping sound when one sustains the injury that leads to a fracture.
  • Bruising, redness, or swelling of the injured area
  • The injured area is visibly deformed
  • Being unable to support weight with the injured area

Sometimes, the broken bone may be visible, piercing through the skin.

Types of fracture

There are open and closed fractures, as well as complete and incomplete fractures.

Open & closed fractures

An open fracture is also known as a compound fracture. It is characterized by a tearing off of the skin at the area where the fractured bone is located. Exposure of the internal tissues and the bone puts the patient at high risk of infection.

A closed fracture, on the other hand, is just a simple fracture. There’s no outward penetration of the fractured bone.

Complete vs. Incomplete fracture

If a person has a complete fracture, it means that the bone is completely broken. It is crushed or snapped in at least two places. There are different types of complete fracture, including:

  • single fracture in which the bone breaks into one or two pieces
  • Communited fracture where the bone is crushed into at three pieces
  • Compression pressure where the bone snaps under intense pressure
  • Nondisplaced fracture, characterized by breaking of the bone, though they do not shift from their normal alignment.
  • Displaced fracture, in which the bones break, and also move from their normal alignment.
  • Segmental fracture, characterized by breaking of the bones in two places in such a way that at least one segment is left floating and unattached.

In an incomplete fracture, the bone is only partially broken. This means that it cracks, but doesn’t break all the way through. The following are types of incomplete fracture:

  • Hairline fracture, characterized by just a thin crack
  • Greenstick fracture – one side of the bone is broken while the other bends
  • Torus or buckle fracture – the bone is broken on one side, while a raised buckle or a bump develops on the other side.

Incomplete fractures are more prevalent in children. The bones of children are softer than those of adults, and so, they are more likely to break. On the other hand, anyone may have a complete fracture.

What’s the cause of a fracture?

An individual may develop a fracture when his or her bone is impacted with a force or pressure that is greater than that which the bone can support. The force is intense and sudden. The severity of a fracture depends on the strength of the force.

The following are common causes of fractures:

  • Direct trauma to the body (gunshots and car accidents)
  • Falls
  • Sport injuries

Risk factors for a fracture

Anyone can experience a fracture at any time, but the risk is greater if you have low-dense or brittle bones. A person may develop brittle bones if they:

  • Are aged
  • Have osteoporosis
  • Are alcoholics
  • Take corticosteroids
  • Have intestinal or endocrine disorders
  • Lead a sedentary lifestyle

Diagnosis of fractures

If you think that you’ve got a fracture, seek immediate medical attention. Your doctor will inquire of your symptoms and conduct a physical examination of the affected area. You may be asked to move the area in different ways to check for symptoms of injury.

If your doctor suspects a fracture, he or she will ask you to do some X-rays. The American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons reports that x-rays are the major method of fracture diagnosis. With an x-ray, your doctor can create pictures of your bone, thus identifying breaks and other defects. With an x-ray, the doctor can also determine the type of fracture and the location.

Sometimes, the patient may be asked to undergo a magnetic resonance imaging test (MRI) or a CAT scan.

Treatment for fractures

Treatment for a fracture depends on the type of fracture and its location.

Your doctor will attempt to fix the broken bones and stabilize them while they heal. The broken bone must not be stressed or moved all through the healing process. While the bone is healing, new bone will form around the edges of the broken pieces. If the bones are aligned and stabilized the right way, the newly-formed bones will join the pieces.

Sometimes, a cast may be used to stabilize the fractured bone. The cast is usually made from fiberglass or plaster. It stabilizes the injured area and prevents the movement of the broken pieces while they heal.

In rare instances, one might require traction to stabilize the fractured area. Traction stretches the tendons and muscles around the bone. The traction is usually administered with a system of weights and pulleys positioned in a metal frame above the patient’s bed. The pulling motion produced by this system is gentle, such that it can be used by the doctor to stabilize the fractured area.

Compound or complex fractures may require surgery. The doctor may use internal fixation, external fixation, or open reduction to prevent movement of the bones.

In internal fixation or open reduction, the doctor will “reduce” or reposition the broken pieces into their normal alignment. Then he or she will fix or reconnect the broken bone. This is done using metal plates, screws, or both. Sometimes, rods may be inserted through the center of the bone.

External fixation is different. The doctor will put screws or pins into the bone below and above the site of fracture. These screws or pins are then connected to a metal bar positioned outside the skin. The bar maintains the bone’s positioning while it heals.

You may be given medications to fight infections, control pain, or manage other complications or symptoms. After the initial stages of treatment, your doctor may recommend physical therapy to help you regain the proper use of the healed part.

Prognosis for fractures

The time taken for a fracture to heal depends on its location and severity. Recovery may also be affected by medical history and age. Some medical conditions can impair the ability of the body to mend fractured bones.

A fracture may take several weeks, or in some cases, years to heal. Most times, the pain subsides even before the healing is completed. You may need to avoid moving the injured area until it is totally healed. Your participation in daily activities may be affected. Adjustments to the daily routine may be necessary until healing is complete.

You may return to your regular schedule once the fracture heals. There are instances where physical therapy may be necessary. Physical therapy helps you to regain normal use of the affected body part. Recall that the affected part had been immobilized during the healing process. A prolonged period of non-usage can cause loss of muscle strength and range of motion. Physical therapy also facilitates full recovery.

How can I prevent fractures?

Not all fractures can be prevented. But you can keep your bones healthy and strong. To maintain the strength of your bones, eat a diet rich in nutrients, including foods that contain lots of vitamin D and calcium. Regular exercise is also important.

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