A fracture is a complete or incomplete break in a bone resulting from the application of excessive force.
A fracture usually results from traumatic injury to a bone, causing the continuity of bone tissues or bony cartilage to be disrupted or broken. Fracture classifications include simple or compound and incomplete or complete. Simple fractures (often called "closed") are not obvious as the skin has not been ruptured and remains intact. Compound fractures (commonly called "open") break the skin, exposing bone and causing additional soft tissue injury and possible infection. A single fracture means that one fracture has occurred, and multiple fractures refer to more than one fracture occurring in the same bone. Fractures are termed complete if the break is completely through the bone and described as incomplete or "greenstick" if the fracture occurs partly across a bone shaft. This latter type of fracture is often the result of bending or crushing forces applied to a bone.
Fractures are also named according to the specific part of the bone involved and the nature of the break. Identification of a fracture line can further classify fractures. Types include linear, oblique, transverse, longitudinal, and spiral fractures. Fractures can be further subdivided by the positions of bony fragments and are described as comminuted, non-displaced, impacted, overriding, angulated, displaced, avulsed, and segmental. Additionally, an injury may be classified as a fracture-dislocation when a fracture involves the bony structures of any joint with associated dislocation of the same joint.
Fractures line identification
Linear fractures have a break that runs parallel to the bone's main axis or in the direction of the bone's shaft. For example, a linear fracture of the arm bone could extend the entire length of the bone. Oblique and transverse fractures differ in that an oblique fracture crosses a bone at approximately a 45° angle to the bone's axis. In contrast, a transverse fracture crosses a bone's axis at a 90° angle. A longitudinal fracture is similar to a linear fracture. Its fracture line extends along the shaft but is more irregular in shape and does not run parallel to the bone's axis. Spiral fractures are described as crossing a bone at an oblique angle, creating a spiral pattern. This break usually occurs in the long bones of the body such as the upper arm bone (humerus) or the thigh bone (femur).
Bony fragment position identification
Comminuted fractures have two or more fragments broken into small pieces, in addition to the upper and lower halves of a fractured bone. Fragments of bone that maintain their normal alignment following a fracture are described as being non-displaced. An impacted fracture is characterized as a bone fragment forced into or onto another fragment resulting from a compressive force. Overriding is a term used to describe bony fragments that overlap and shorten the total length of a bone. Angulated fragments result in pieces of bone being at angles to each other. A displaced bony fragment occurs from disruption of normal bone alignment with deformity of these segments separate from one another. An avulsed fragment occurs when bone fragments are pulled from their normal position by forceful muscle contractions or resistance from ligaments. Segmental fragmented positioning occurs if fractures in two adjacent areas occur, leaving an isolated central segment. An example of segmental alignment occurs when the arm bone fractures in two separate places, with displacement of the middle section of bone.
The exact number of fractures sustained in the United States each year is not known as many are not treated. Experts estimate the number of fractures at between 10 and 20 million. People of all ages and races experience fractures. Broken bones are slightly more common among children due to their increased level of activity and among older people due to their lack of exercise and inadequate intake of calcium.
Causes and symptoms
Individuals with high activity levels appear to be at greater risk for fractures. This group includes children and athletes participating in contact sports . Because of an increase in bone brittleness with aging, elderly persons are also included in this high-risk population. Up to the age of 50, more men suffer from fractures than women due to occupational hazards. However, after the age of 50, women are more prone to fractures than men. Specific diseases causing an increased risk for fractures include Paget's disease, rickets, osteogenesis imperfecta , osteoporosis, bone cancer and tumors, and prolonged disuse of a nonfunctional body part such as after a stroke .
Symptoms of fractures usually begin with pain that increases with attempted movement or use of the area and swelling at the involved site. The skin in the area may be pale and an obvious deformity may be present. In more severe cases, there may be a loss of pulse below the fracture site, such as in the extremities, accompanied by numbness , tingling , or paralysis below the fracture. An open or compound fracture is often accompanied by bleeding or bruising. If the lower limbs or pelvis are fractured, pain and resistance to movement usually accompany the injury causing difficulty with weight bearing.
When to call the doctor
A physician should be called when a child complains of bone pain. This is a deep pain that may be exquisitely tender to the touch.
Diagnosis begins immediately with an individual's own observation of symptoms. A thorough medical history and physical exam by a physician often reveals the presence of a fracture. An x ray of the injured area is the most common test used to determine the presence of a bone fracture. Any x-ray series performed involves at least two views of the area to confirm the presence of the fracture because not all fractures are apparent on a single x ray. Some fractures are often difficult to see and may require several views at different angles to see clear fracture lines. In some cases, CT, MRI, or other imaging tests are required to demonstrate fracture. Sometimes, especially with children, the initial x ray may not show any fractures, but if it is repeated seven to 14 days later, the x ray may show changes in the bone(s) of the affected area. If a fracture is open and occurs in conjunction with soft tissue injury, further laboratory studies are often conducted to determine if blood loss has occurred.
In the event of exercise-related stress fractures (micro-fractures due to excessive stress), a tuning fork can provide a simple, inexpensive test. The tuning fork is a metal instrument with a stem and two prongs that vibrate when struck. If an individual has increased pain when the tuning fork is placed on a bone, such as the tibia or shinbone, the likelihood of a stress fracture is high. Bone scans also are helpful in detecting stress fractures. In this diagnostic procedure, a radioactive tracer is injected into the bloodstream and images are taken of specific areas or the entire skeleton by CT or MRI.
Treatment depends on the type of fracture, its severity, the individual's age, and the person's general health. The first priority in treating any fracture is to address the entire medical status of the patient. Medical personnel are trained not to allow a painful, deformed limb to distract them from potentially life-threatening injury elsewhere or shock. If an open fracture is accompanied by serious soft tissue injury, it may be necessary to control bleeding and the shock that can accompany loss of blood.
First aid is the appropriate initial treatment in emergency situations. It includes proper splinting, control of blood loss, and monitoring vital signs such as breathing and circulation.
Immobilization of a fracture site can be done internally or externally. The primary goal of immobilization is to maintain the realignment of a bone long enough for healing to start and progress. Immobilization by external fixation uses splints, casts, or braces. This may be the primary and only procedure for fracture treatment. Splinting to immobilize a fracture can be done with or without traction. In emergency situations if the injured individual must be moved by someone other than a trained medical person, splinting is a useful form of fracture management. It should be done without causing additional pain and without moving the bone segments. In a clinical environment, plaster of Paris casts are used for immobilization. Braces are useful as they often allow movement above and below a fracture site. Treatments for stress fractures include rest and decreasing or stopping any activity that causes or increases pain.
Fracture reduction is the procedure by which a fractured bone is realigned in normal position. It can be either closed or open. Closed reduction refers to realigning bones without breaking the skin. It is performed with manual manipulation and/or traction and is commonly done with some kind of anesthetic. Open reduction primarily refers to surgery that is performed to realign bones or fragments. Fractures with little or no displacement may not require any form of reduction.
Traction is used to help reposition a broken bone. It works by applying pressure to restore proper alignment. The traction device immobilizes the area and maintains realignment as the bone heals. A fractured bone is immobilized by applying opposing force at both ends of the injured area, using an equal amount of traction and countertraction. Weights provide the traction pull needed or the pull is achieved by positioning the individual's body weight appropriately. Traction is a form of closed reduction and is sometimes used as an alternative to surgery. Since it restricts movement of the affected limb or body part, it may confine a person to bed rest for an extended period of time.
Avulsion fracture —A fracture caused by the tearing away of a fragment of bone where a strong ligament or tendon attachment forcibly pulls the fragment away from the bone tissue.
Axis —A line that passes through the center of the body or body part.
Comminuted fracture —A fracture where there are several breaks in a bone creating numerous fragments.
Compartment syndrome —A condition in which the blood supply to a muscle is cut off because the muscle swells but is constricted by the connective tissue around it.
Contrast hydrotherapy —A series of hot and cold water applications. A hot compress (as hot as an individual can tolerate) is applied for three minutes followed by an ice cold compress for 30 seconds. These applications are repeated three times each and ending with the cold compress.
Osteogenesis imperfecta —An inherited disorder of the connective tissues that involves multiple symptoms, including weakened bones that break easily.
Osteoporosis —Literally meaning "porous bones," this condition occurs when bones lose an excessive amount of their protein and mineral content, particularly calcium. Over time, bone mass and strength are reduced leading to increased risk of fractures.
Paget's disease —A chronic disorder of unknown cause usually affecting middle aged and elderly people and characterized by enlarged and deformed bones. Changes in the normal mechanism of bone formation occur in Paget's disease and can cause bones to weaken, resulting in bone pain, arthritis, deformities, and fractures. Also known as osteitis deformans.
Reduction —The restoration of a body part to its original position after displacement, such as the reduction of a fractured bone by bringing ends or fragments back into original alignment. The use of local or general anesthesia usually accompanies a fracture reduction. If performed by outside manipulation only, the reduction is described as closed; if surgery is necessary, it is described as open. Also describes a chemical reaction in which one or more electrons are added to an atom or molecule.
Rickets —A condition caused by the dietary deficiency of vitamin D, calcium, and usually phosphorus, seen primarily in infancy and childhood, and characterized by abnormal bone formation.
Traction —The process of placing a bone, limb, or group of muscles under tension by applying weights and pulleys. The goal is to realign or immobilize the part or to relieve pressure on that particular area to promote healing and restore function.
A person may need open reduction if there is an open, severe, or comminuted fracture. This procedure allows a physician to examine and surgically correct associated soft tissue damage while reducing the fracture and, if necessary, applying internal or external devices. Internal fixation involves the use of metallic devices inserted into or through bone to hold the fracture in a set position and alignment while it heals. Devices include plates, nails, screws, and rods. When healing is complete, the surgeon may or may not remove these devices. Virtually any hip fracture requires open reduction and internal fixation so that the bone will be able to support the patient's weight.
In addition to the importance of calcium for strong bones, many alternative treatment approaches recommend use of mineral supplements to help build and maintain a healthy, resilient skeleton. Some physical therapists use electro-stimulation over a fractured site to promote and expedite healing. Chinese traditional medicine may be helpful by working to reconnect chi (life energy) through the meridian lines along the line of a fracture. Homeopathy can enhance the body's healing process. Two particularly useful homeopathic remedies are arnica ( Arnica montana ) and symphytum ( Symphytum officinalis ). If possible, applying contrast hydrotherapy to an extremity (e.g., a hand or foot) of a fractured area can assist healing by enhancing circulation.
Fractures involving joint surfaces almost always lead to some degree of arthritis of the joint. Fractures can normally be cured with proper first aid and appropriate aftercare. If determined necessary by a physician, the fractured site should be manipulated, realigned, and immobilized as soon as possible. Realignment has been shown to be much more difficult after six hours. Healing time varies from person to person with the elderly generally needing more time to heal completely. A non-union fracture may result when a fracture does not heal, such as in the case of an elderly person or an individual with medical complications. Recovery is complete when there is no bone motion at the fracture site, and x-rays indicate complete healing. Open fractures may lead to bone infections, which delay the healing process. Another possible complication is compartment syndrome, a painful condition resulting from the expansion of enclosed tissue and that may occur when a body part is immobilized in a cast.
Fractures can be prevented if safety measures are taken seriously. These measures include using seat belts in cars and encouraging children to wear protective sports gear. Weight-bearing exercise also helps to strengthen bones.
Persons who consume diets that are rich in calcium are less likely to experience a fracture than those who have diets that are deficient in calcium. Good dietary sources of calcium are milk, cheese, and other dairy products.
Parents should ensure that their children drink milk to provide an adequate intake of calcium. Children should also participate in regular physical exercise.
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L. Fleming Fallon, Jr., MD, DrPH