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Understanding Fractures

Joe Fleming provides an athlete's guide to understanding fractures.

The deafening crack of a bone breaking is painful enough, much less the treatment and recovery period that follows. A fracture can side-line your athletic ambitions in an instant and keep you off the field for weeks to months at a time. Do not miss this quick guide to understanding fractures and the steps you can take to guard yourself against them.

Types of Fractures

A hard blow to an extremity or even actions like hyperextending your leg while playing a contact sport can result in many different types of leg fractures including:

  • Open fracture - also known as a compound fracture, an open fracture involves open skin at the site of the bone break, typically from a piece of bone poking through (this increases the risk for infection)
  • Closed fracture - a closed fracture, or simple fracture, is wholly contained inside the body with no broken skin.
  • Incomplete fracture - this type of fracture involves a crack in the bone without the bone fully breaking. Stress fractures, hairline fractures, buckle, and greenstick fractures are all incomplete fractures.
  • Complete fracture - a full break of a bone into two or more pieces is known as a complete fracture. Depending on how the bone breaks, the fracture may have a different name. For example, a comminuted fracture refers to when the bone fractures into three or more pieces; a displaced fracture is when the bone breaks into two pieces and moves out of alignment.

Additional complete fractures include stable fractures, segmental fractures, compression fractures, and single fractures.

Risk Factors for Fractures

While playing contact sports like hockey and football can naturally increase your risk of experiencing a fracture, additional factors are also important to keep in mind. Low bone density naturally makes your bones more susceptible to breaking. Low bone density can occur because of certain medical conditions and age (women over 50 lose significant bone mass); however, inactivity, poor diet, and excessive drinking and smoking can contribute to it as well.

Repetitive overuse can stress bones too leading to hairline fractures known as stress fractures. Overuse may include repeating the same motion or action over and over for many months or even years like baseball pitchers who continually throw with the same arm or runners who pound the same road day in and day out.

Complications of Fractures

Incurring a fracture is in itself a traumatic event, much less experiencing complications from one; however, there are a variety of things that "can go wrong" when it comes to healing a broken bone.

  • Osteomyelitis (bone infection) - more pertinent to open fractures where the broken skin has exposed the bone to bacteria or fungi, bone infections can delay healing and require extra treatment
  • Blood vessel or nerve damage - nerves and blood vessels situated in or around the area where a fracture occurs may themselves get injured and result in weakness, numbness, and circulation problems
  • Osteoarthritis - years after a bone break which extended into a joint, you might feel pain, discomfort, and stiffness due to inflammation and misalignment
  • Delayed healing - severe fractures, especially those in areas with low blood flow (like the tibia) may take longer to heal or have trouble healing completely altogether
  • Ankle or knee pain - bone breaks in the leg can result in continued pain and discomfort in adjoining joints down the line
  • Compartment syndrome - this rare complication usually results from bleeding or swelling following a fracture which leads to excessive pressure build-up in the muscle(s) around the affected bone. This prevents adequate blood flow and can lead to further pain, swelling, and even disability

In some cases of children fracturing bones at a younger age where a growth plate in the body is impacted, they may experience anatomical disparities later in life like one leg being slightly longer or shorter than the other.

Treating Fractures

Diagnosing and treating fractures initially involves a series of imaging tests that help doctors uncover the exact location of the fracture and deduce the type and severity of the break. Seeking prompt attention following an injury is key to a timely and successful recovery. Symptoms of a bone break may include:

  • Pain - typically pretty severe that worsens when you move
  • Tenderness
  • Swelling
  • Inability to walk (if you fracture a leg bone)
  • Bruising
  • Visible deformity

Fractures are typically addressed in two ways - with surgery (i.e. in the case of severe leg fractures) or by casting (or splinting) the appendage for a certain amount of time to align the bones and allow them time to grow back together. The goal is ultimately to return fracture bones to their original position and stabilize them, so they can properly heal.

Recovery periods can range from a handful of weeks to months, depending on how badly the bone is broken and where it is broken. Following healing, a period of rehabilitation and physical therapy will be conducted to help you regain strength, the range of motion, and flexibility in the affected limb.

Preventing Fractures

It goes without saying that protecting your bones is critical when playing sports and staying physically active. To guard against fractures, you should:

  • Build up strength in your bones - bone is living tissue which means it is constantly in a state of flux being broken down and built back up. Your body relies on minerals like calcium and nutrients like vitamin D to keep bone stores at sufficient levels to maintain strong bone density.
  • You can ensure strong bones by consuming 1,000mg of calcium a day via dairy products (milk, cheese, yoghurt) as well as dark leafy greens (spinach, kale, collards) and almonds, seeds, white beans, lentils, fish with their bones in (canned salmon or sardines). Incorporating more sources of vitamin D or even a vitamin D supplement may aid calcium absorption for stronger bones too.
  • Wear protective gear - Sporting appropriate protective gear during practices and games is a must for athletes. This may include shin guards, protective padding, and helmets. Proper fitting shoes can also help ensure good body mechanics are employed when working out and playing sports. This prevents unwanted stress on bones and joints and makes overall play safer.
  • Cross-train - avoiding one of the most common athletic fractures, stress fractures, can be aided by cross-training in a sport different from the one you typically play. That might involve football players, for example, taking days off to swim, cycle, or do yoga.
  • Keep playing - physical activity in itself is a great bone-builder. Weight-bearing activities that involve your body working against gravity (like running, hiking, dancing, football, tennis, you name it) stress your bone and require it to build back even stronger.

Page Reference

If you quote information from this page in your work, then the reference for this page is:

  • FLEMING, J. (2018) Understanding Fractures [WWW] Available from: https://www.brianmac.co.uk/articles/article366.htm [Accessed

About the Author

Joe Fleming is the President at ViveHealth.com. Passionate about healthy lifestyles and living a full life, he enjoys sharing and expressing these interests through his writing. With a goal to inspire others and fight ageism, Joe writes to help people of all backgrounds and ages overcome life's challenges. His work ranges from articles on wellness, holistic health and ageing to social narratives, motivational pieces and news stories. For Joe, helping others is vital.

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