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Broken bone: Types of fractures, symptoms and prevention

Broken bones can happen after accidents, falls or being struck by something.

Broken bones are also called fractures, and can be very painful.

The risk of broken bones often depends partly on a person's age.

Broken bones can be common in childhood and older age.

Children's bones are still forming, plus they may fall off bikes or climbing frames for example.

In older age, people can become more frail and more likely to trip and fall. Plus osteoporosis can make bones more brittle and more likely to fracture after a fall.

Types of bone fracture

There are many types of fractures, but the main categories are complete, incomplete, compound and simple. Complete and incomplete fractures refer to the way the bone breaks. In a complete fracture, the bone snaps into two or more parts; in an incomplete fracture, the bone cracks but does not break all the way through.

In a compound fracture, also called an open fracture, the bone breaks through the skin. It may then recede back into the wound, so it is no longer visible through the skin. In a simple fracture, also called a closed fracture, the bone breaks but there is no open wound in the skin.

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Simple fractures include:

  • Greenstick fracture: an incomplete fracture in which the bone is bent. This type of fracture occurs most often in children.
  • Transverse fracture: a fracture at a right angle to the bone's axis.
  • Oblique fracture: a fracture in which the break is at an angle to the bone’s axis.
  • Comminuted fracture: a fracture in which the bone fragments into several pieces.
  • An impacted fracture is one whose ends are driven into each other. This commonly occurs with arm fractures in children and is sometimes known as a buckle fracture.

Among other types of fracture are: a pathological fracture, caused by a disease that weakens the bones; and a stress fracture, which is a hairline crack.

The severity of a fracture depends on its location and the damage done to the bone and nearby tissue. Serious fractures can have dangerous complications if they are not treated promptly, such as damage to blood vessels or nerves and infection of the bone (osteomyelitis) or surrounding tissue.

The recuperation time after a fracture varies depending on the age and health of the patient and the type of fracture. A minor fracture in a child may heal within a few weeks; a serious fracture in an older person may take months to heal.

What are the symptoms of a bone fracture?

Signs and symptoms of a fracture include:

  • Swelling or bruising over a bone.
  • Deformity of an arm or leg.
  • Pain in the injured area that gets worse when the area is moved or pressure is applied.
  • Loss of function in the injured area.
  • In compound fractures, bone protruding from the skin.

Fractures are usually caused by a fall, blow or other traumatic event. Pathological fractures are those caused by disease that weakens the bones; they can occur with little or no trauma. Osteoporosis, a disorder in which the bones thin and lose strength as they age, causes around 250,000 fractures each year in the UK, especially in the hip, wrist and spine.

Bone cancer is another disease that may lead to pathological fractures.

Seek medical attention if you think you may have fractured a bone. This is a medical emergency.

WebMD Medical Reference

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