The Facts About Broken Bones
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. You can break a bone by falling off a skateboard or crashing down from the monkey bars.
When a bone breaks it is called a fracture (say: FRAK-chur). 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 the bone that’s snapped in two pieces like a broken tree branch.
Doctors describe fractures in the following ways:
- A complete fracture is when the bone has broken into two pieces.
- A greenstick fracture is when the bone cracks on one side only, not all the way through.
- A single fracture is when the bone is broken in one place.
- A comminuted (say: kah-muh-NOOT-ed) fracture is when the bone is broken into more than two pieces or crushed.
- A bowing fracture, which only happens in kids, is when the bone bends but doesn’t break.
- An open fracture is when the bone is sticking through the skin.
What Happens When a Bone Breaks?
It hurts to break a bone! It’s different for everyone, but the pain is often like the deep ache you get from a super bad stomachache or headache. Some people may experience sharper pain — especially with an open fracture. And if the fracture is small, a kid may not feel much pain at all. Sometimes, kids won’t even be able to tell that they broke a bone!
Breaking a bone is a big shock to your whole body. It’s normal for you to receive strong messages from parts of your body that aren’t anywhere close to the fracture. You may feel dizzy, woozy, or chilly from the shock. A lot of people cry for a while. Some people pass out until their bodies have time to adjust to all the signals they’re getting. And other people 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, a grown-up may be able to cushion or support the surrounding area with towels or pillows.
One super-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!
What Does the Doctor Do?
To treat the broken bone, the doctor needs to know which kind of fracture it is. That’s where X-rays come in handy. X-rays are like pictures that 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, the special bandage that will 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 (that’s why they last so long!).
Sometimes casts are made of fiberglass or plastic — and some are even waterproof, which means you can still go swimming and get them wet! And sometimes they come in cool colors or patterns that you can choose.
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 get some medicine so you’ll be asleep and unable to feel any pain. When your bone has healed, the doctor will remove the pin or pins.
How Do 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.
What to Do When the Cast Comes Off
Can you believe they use a saw to remove your cast? The funny thing is this saw doesn’t hurt your skin at all. It might even tickle!
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. Kids are great healers, so 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 the doctor if you should avoid any activities, such as hanging from the monkey bars. 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 often can 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. How do you do that?
- Get a lot of physical activity, especially stuff like 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.
Reviewed by: Yamini Durani, MD
Date reviewed: October 2012