Overview of broken bones
Broken bones are very common. Though bone is made of very strong tissue, impact, stress, and overuse injuries can all cause partial or complete breaks (or fractures).
If you think you have broken a bone, you can find fast, reliable, and nearby emergency care through Dignity Health’s network of emergency departments and experienced orthopedic specialists.
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Common symptoms of a broken bone include:
- Hearing a snap or grinding noise during the injury
- Difficulty moving the injured area or bearing weight
- Pain or tenderness
There are three primary causes of broken bones:
- Overuse: repetitive motion exerting enough force on the bone to cause a stress fracture over time
- Trauma: such as a fall, car accident, or sports injury
- Osteoporosis: a medical condition which leads to weak bones and makes them more likely to break
Most broken bones heal without problems over the course of several weeks. Some broken bones are more severe and require a longer healing time plus surgery, immobilization, and/or rehabilitation.
Depending on the type of force that caused the fracture, the bone may only crack slightly. In other cases, it can splinter or even shatter.
Fractures are often described as one of the following:
- Stable fracture: when bone pieces line up or are barely out of place
- Displaced fracture: when bone pieces do not line up and are out of place
- Stress or “hairline” fracture: when a bone is cracked but not broken all the way
- Complete fracture: when a bone breaks in two pieces
- Transverse fracture: a horizontal break across the bone
- Oblique fracture: an angled break across the bone
- Comminuted fracture: when a bone breaks in three or more pieces or is crushed
- Compound or “open” fracture: when a fracture breaks the skin. Bone fragments may be sticking out through the skin.
- Compression fracture: when the bone collapses from pressure
- Avulsion fracture: when a ligament or tendon pulls off a small piece of bone
- Torus fracture: when only one side of the bone breaks from bending outward
- Greenstick fracture: when the bone breaks like a “green stick” only on one side
Broken bones are typically the result of accidents, but some people are more likely to experience them than others. The following factors could increase your risk of a broken bone:
- Age: Bones tend to lose density and strength as they age.
- Sex: Hormones influence bone density. Postmenopausal women tend to be at higher risk of fractures, and women have a slightly higher risk overall. Half of women over 50 will have a fracture in their lifetime, while only 1 in 4 men will, according to the American Bone Health Organization.
- Smoking and drinking habits: Both smoking and heavy alcohol use can make bones weaker and impair vitamin D retention, an essential factor in bone health.
- Diet: Not getting enough calcium or vitamin D can make bones weaker.
- Some chronic diseases: Arthritis, type 1 diabetes, celiac disease, Crohn’s disease, and ulcerative colitis are all linked to bone loss.
- Certain medications: Some medications, including corticosteroids, increase fracture risk.
- Family history: When a parent has had a broken bone, you are more likely to as well.
- Personal history of previous fractures: If you’ve already had a fracture, your future risk doubles.
Broken bones are one of the most common injuries. However, it’s possible to reduce your risk by:
- Engaging in regular weight-bearing exercise
- Reducing the chance of falls by managing your daily activities
- Using appropriate protective gear for sports
- Limiting alcohol consumption and not smoking
- Getting adequate vitamin D and calcium through diet or supplementation
The information contained in this article is meant for educational purposes only and should not replace advice from your healthcare provider.