If you have just sustained a painful injury, the severity might not always be visible. Fractures are oftentimes impossible to diagnose without imaging technology, but depending on the type of break may make the type of injury more obvious. Your level of pain and the amount of pressure you can put on the injury will help determine whether you have sprained, dislocated, or broken a bone.
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How to Tell if You Have a Broken Bone
If you have just sustained an injury but are unsure whether you have broken your bone, understanding the level of pain and the look and feel of the surrounding area on the skin may give you a good idea. If you have broken a bone, you probably won’t be able to put much pressure on the injury and notice deep bruising and swelling. More obvious signs may be deformity to the bone - meaning the bone looks out of place or abnormal shape and size.
Fracture vs. Break
Firstly, there isn’t a difference between a “fracture” and a “break.” Still, different classifications of bones and fractures exist depending on how the bone is fragmented or protruding through the skin. Each year, millions of Americans break a bone. It’s possible to break any of the 206 bones in the human body. Still, the most common bone breaks involve the clavicle, arm, wrist, hip, and ankle sustained most often from falls or motor vehicle accidents, says Physical Therapist Dr. Gina Kim.
Board-Certified Orthopedic Surgeon. Dr. Jerome G. Enad says osteoporosis and overuse are also common causes of broken bones. Osteoporosis is a condition of weak bones more prone to injury. You may overuse a bone through repeated motions that cause stress fractures. Common signs you might have broken a bone may include any number of the following:
Depending on the type of break, the pain may feel sharp, but sometimes a break can occur over time with local discomfort and pain when inducing pressure on the injury site. It is also not uncommon for people to begin feeling signs of shock after breaking a bone. Shock happens from a sudden drop in blood flow due to trauma, burns, heat stroke, and other major medical events.
Bruising and discoloration of the injury site may indicate a broken bone. While we have all experienced minor bruising from silly bumps and falls which oftentimes do not indicate a broken bone, a general rule to follow is the bigger the bruise, the deeper the trauma. Bruising indicates damage to the tissue and the release of blood from capillaries, your small blood vessels.
When you break a bone, your body responds by swelling around the area. While this is a painful process, your immune system works to clot the broken blood vessels and repair the damaged area. This allows your immune system to remove the bone fragments and reduce the chances of infection. Over the next few days, the swelling may become hard to the touch.
If you notice a deformity, that is a pretty good indicator of a break, especially on your longer limbs like arms or legs. If the bone is bending in an area that typically does not, or you notice the bone protruding through the skin, this more than likely indicates a break or dislocation.
Crepitus is described as crunching under the skin, a feeling that is not supposed to exist. This indicates pieces of a broken bone may be rubbing against each other. Crepitus may sound like popping, crackling, or a crackling sound in a joint.
Types of Fractures
Healthcare providers categorize breaks into different classifications depending on the depth of the break, the number of pieces the bone is broken into, and whether the bone has protruded through the skin. The following are the various types of fractures you may experience:
A simple fracture is only a partially fractured bone. These injuries are usually treated by setting the bone into its natural place with a splint or cast.
Oblique fractures classify a diagonal or angled pattern of breaking. Treatment can be done with medication and rest but may require a doctor to reset the bone.
A comminuted fracture is when the bone shatters into at least three pieces. Such an injury will likely require surgery to repair.
A compound fracture is when the break ruptures the skin. Sometimes, the bone may even protrude out of the skin. These injuries are more susceptible to infection and will likely require immediate care and antibiotics to help prevent infection.
A spiral fracture travels around the bone. Spiral fractures are common in the tibia and oftentimes require surgery to repair.
How to Manage a Broken Bone at Home
Growing up, you might have heard of the acronym “RICE” for Rest, Ice, Compress and Elevate for the steps to take when managing a broken bone. While some suggest this may actually reduce swelling and blood flow, an essential part of the healing process, many doctors still recommend this practice.
Board Certified Orthopedic Surgeon Jerome G. Enad, MD, says, “RICE was recommended for the acute treatment of injuries that were not broken bones (i.e., sprains, strains, bruises). RICE is still a good treatment for the first 24-48 hours of those types of injuries, but there are newer recommendations to move on from RICE after the first 24-48 hours into more movement, less ice, and manual therapy to promote recovery. For broken bones, RICE (incorporating the steps described above) may also be a good start for the initial treatment, but you should still get checked out with an x-ray if you think it’s broken.”
Dr. Gina Kim, PT, suggests following your physician’s orders, eating nutritious meals with plenty of proteins, and seeking help from a physical therapist to return to normal function after your injury. Medical and surgical orthopedic nurse, Jonathan Steele of Water Cures, suggests utilizing vitamin C to bolster your healing process as well as getting out in the sun. In conjunction with calcium, vitamin D will help support the building and maintenance of strong bones.
Where to Go for a Broken Bone
You typically do not need to call an ambulance for a fracture unless your thigh bone (femur) or other major bone protruding through skin or major arteries. You can go to an urgent care facility or the emergency room to get a diagnosis and treatment. Both options have x-ray capabilities and can diagnose, set and splint most types of fractures. You should opt for the ER over urgent care if:
- You suspect the bone or joint is severely broken or dislocated
- You suspect a larger bone, such as the femur, pelvis, or hip, is broken
- You suspect a facial fracture to the skull, eyes, or dental bones
- You suspect a spinal fracture
While both the hospital or urgent care are capable of splinting the injury, you will likely have to see an orthopedic doctor set a permanent cast and decide whether you need surgery. To maximize your chances of healing, follow the guidelines from your doctor and be sure to practice the exercises as directed by your prescribed physical therapist - which will likely happen once the permanent cast can be removed.
How To Tell if You Broke a Bone Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Breaking a bone puts a serious damper on your plans and is met with painful symptoms and oftentimes confusion or dizziness. Here are some additional considerations for managing your injury.
How do you minimize the risk of a broken bone?
- Make the home safer by rearranging the furniture away from the path, fix the loose rugs, and put away things that can trip you up.
- Make sure your house is brightly lit by ensuring all the entries and hallway lights are brightly lit.
- Do physical therapy exercises as recommended by your doctor when your pain levels are the lowest.
- Eat foods that can help promote bone strength like almonds, beans, eggs, whole grains, etc.
What is the difference between a sprain and a strain?
A sprain is an injury to a ligament, while a strain is an injury to the muscle or tendon. Ligaments connect bone-to-bone, while tendons connect muscle-to-bone. These injuries are often treated by restricting the movement of the injury and stabilizing the surrounding area.
How much does it cost to go to the urgent care or ER to treat my injury?
The average cost of urgent care without insurance ranges from $80 to $280 for a simple visit and $140 to $440 for a more advanced visit. The average cost for a doctor’s visit ranges between $300 and $600 without insurance. According to research done by UnitedHealth, in the United States, an emergency room visit costs $2,200 on average.
Breaking a bone is a common occurrence that one is bound to experience. Understanding the signs and symptoms may help you determine your course of action to help your injury heal more efficiently and correctly. You may notice deep bruising, swelling, or even a deformity indicating you may have just fractured a bone. Oftentimes, you may not need to rush to the emergency room and may be able to go to your local urgent care. Follow your doctor’s directives for how to optimize your healing process.
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