Leaving a Fracture Untreated: What You Should Know
During a rough game of football, your shin gradually starts to ache more and more, until you almost can’t bear to put weight on it. Though you don’t recall a specific moment where your leg snapped or bent the wrong way, it’s starting to hurt terribly and you’re pretty sure it’s broken.
But do you really need to visit a doctor? Do small fractures heal on their own? Here’s what you should know about leaving a fracture untreated and why it’s always a good idea to get it checked out.
How Fractures Heal
Your bones are amazing. If you broke a ceramic plate, you couldn’t put the pieces next to each other and expect them to grow back together over the next few weeks. But that’s exactly how fractures heal. Your skeleton has the ability to repair itself.
However, it does need some help. When you break a bone, the pieces might get out of alignment in the process, so a doctor has to X-ray your fracture and make sure the bones are set correctly. If they’re out of alignment, the doctor will put them back in the correct position. You might need surgery to accomplish this.
Diagnosing a Broken Bone
How do you know if you have a fracture? The best way is to get an X-ray. The symptoms that might cause you to see a doctor include pain, redness, bruising, deformity, or swelling, which are all signs of a broken bone.
If your injury is sensitive to weight, such as when you take a step forward on your injured leg, that’s another sign of a fracture. The pain might worsen as time goes on.
Categories of Fractures
There are several different types of fractures. They can be categorized by the direction or shape of the fracture itself, including:
- Oblique: A diagonal break.
- Transverse: A horizontal break.
- Linear: A vertical break. In other words, a vertical crack runs down the length of the bone.
- Spiral: The fracture curves around the bone.
- Comminuted: The bone breaks into multiple shards at the site of the fracture.
- Segmental: Two fractures occur on the same bone, but in different spots, causing the middle section to be loose.
- Greenstick: Only seen in children, this is when the bone bends but doesn’t break all the way through. It just cracks on one side.
Fractures can also be classified by what caused them. They can be:
- Traumatic: Too much force was applied to a healthy bone, all at once.
- Pathological: A normal amount of force was applied to a diseased bone.
- Hairline: A normal amount of force was applied to a healthy bone, but repeatedly over time. Also called a stress fracture, this is common in athletes and people with osteoporosis. It’s characterized by a gradual achiness and a bruised feeling that increases with activity and is relieved with rest. Later, it becomes tender to the touch, eventually turning into a constant ache. It often occurs in the shins and feet but can affect any bone.
The Importance of Seeing a Doctor
Whether your bones are already lined up correctly or you need medical help to realign them, you may need a cast to hold your bones still. It helps you keep them in the right position over the next few weeks or months. This is very important. If your body tries to heal itself while your bones aren’t lined up properly, you can end up with a permanent deformity as your fracture heals, if it does at all.
For example, if your finger gets bent sideways when you break it, and you let it heal in that position, it can stay that way for the rest of your life. It will look deformed and probably won’t work right. Leaving a fracture untreated can also lead to an infection, permanent joint problems, or a more serious break in the bone. That’s why it’s so important to see a doctor.
Exceptions to a Cast
In some cases, you won’t receive a cast, such as if you fracture your ribs, skull, shoulder, or tailbone. It’s difficult or impossible to place a cast in these spots. However, your bones still might need to be aligned properly, so you should go to the doctor as soon as you suspect a fracture.
The doctor may instruct you not to place any weight on the fracture or try to hold it as still as possible while it heals. Or, you might be given a splint and tape, a soft sling, or crutches in lieu of a cast. It’s important to keep using them until the doctor says you can stop.
The Healing Timeline
It can take weeks to months to heal a broken bone. Healing time depends on many factors, such as how bad the fracture was if you got an infection and the lifestyle choices you make. If you smoke, for example, your injury will take longer to heal and you might have complications during recovery. Eating a healthy diet rich in vitamins will probably speed up your recovery.
When a bone is healing very slowly, this is called delayed union. If it doesn’t heal at all, it’s called nonunion. There are many possible causes for this. Some of them include:
- Poor blood supply to the bone
- Infection of the fracture site
- Inadequate stabilization of the fracture, meaning the bones weren’t set properly
- Location of the fracture – certain bones are harder to heal than others
Signs a Broken Bone Is Not Healing
If your broken bone continues to be very painful, still can’t support your weight, or is starting to look deformed, these are signs you should return to the doctor’s office. You might receive an X-ray, CT scan, or MRI scan to confirm that the bone is still broken. If it is, you may need additional treatment depending on what’s causing the nonunion.
Your doctor might recommend surgery to restabilize the fracture. Metal rods, screws, or plates could help stabilize your broken bone. If you have an infection, you may require antibiotics or surgery to remove it. A bone graft could stimulate new bone growth at the fracture site.
If all goes according to plan, your broken bone should heal within a few weeks to months. It can take three to six months for your bone to recover about 80-90% of its original strength. From there, it can take another six to nine months to go back to full strength.
Although your bone won’t grow back stronger, it will go back to the way it was before. Your doctor will tell you when you can remove your cast, stop using crutches, or resume movement of the affected limb. Then, you can gradually resume normal activities if your doctor gives you the green light.
Leaving a Fracture Untreated
By now, you know it’s important to always treat a fracture and to see a doctor if you suspect you have one. Although small fractures can heal themselves, they may not do so correctly, and leaving a broken bone untreated can lead to infection, deformity, and loss of mobility. In summary, get help as soon as you can. You’ll be on the road to recovery in no time.
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