Broken leg

Medical quality assurance by Dr. Albrecht Nonnenmacher, MD at May 31, 2016
StartDiseasesBroken leg

Trauma from accidents is the most common cause of a broken leg. While broken bones of the leg can be serious injuries, proper care and treatment help ensure positive outcomes.

Contents

Definition & Facts

The leg is made up of four bones. Any one of these bones may be broken in one or multiple places. The femur runs from the hip to the knee, and it is the longest and strongest bone in the body. The lower leg is comprised of the tibia and fibula. The tibia is the bone on the front of the leg, often known as the shin bone. The fibula is smaller and on the outside of the leg. At the knee, the kneecap, also called the patella, is the fourth bone of the leg.

Symptoms & Complaints

Pain, swelling, and deformity are the three major symptoms of a broken bone in the leg. When a bone is broken, most people will feel severe pain at the site of the break. In addition to pain, there is also often quite a bit of swelling and skin discoloration in the area of the break.

Another major symptom of a broken bone in the leg is deformity. For example, the leg with the broken bone may appear shorter than the other leg. Similarly, the leg below the break can be twisted in a direction that it would not normally go. A third type of deformity is when the leg is bent at a place other than a normal joint. This is a definite sign of a broken bone.

Causes

There are several ways that a person can break a bone in the leg. However, bones are strong, and it does take quite a bit of force to do so. Nonetheless, if forces placed on your bone are greater than the bone can handle, it will break. One way that force can be placed on the leg bones is during a traumatic injury. For example, people involved in car, motorcycle, or bicycle accidents often incur bone breaks due to the fact that moving vehicles that crash can cause extreme forces.

Additionally, those involved in skiing accidents, sporting accidents, or falls from heights may also sustain injuries that involve broken leg bones from other outside forces. Lesser injuries may cause broken bones too, especially if the bones are already weakened. Bones can be weakened by cancer, other tumors, bone cysts, some medications or medical treatments, or osteoporosis.

Finally, sometimes bones can be broken due to the repetitive movement of certain activities. Joggers and runners, for example, are prone to stress fractures or breaks of the leg.

Diagnosis & Tests

A doctor will begin the diagnosis of a broken leg by first examining the leg. If the doctor suspects a break she will likely order X-rays to see the bones. While X-ray studies can determine most breaks in bones, stress fractures may be more difficult to see. They are the most difficult to diagnosis because they are relatively small breaks. Additionally, X-rays cannot determine any soft tissue damage. When a bone is broken, the arteries and nerves must be examined to make sure there is no damage to them. Therefore, further studies such as CT scans may be necessary.

A doctor will check for the pulse in different parts of the leg below the break to ascertain blood flow. She may also test for feeling in different locations to assure that there has been no nerve damage. If the doctor suspects that the break may have occurred because of weakened bones, he may also order lab studies and other testing to find the causes. 

Treatment & Therapy

When a broken leg bone is suspected, there are some first aid steps a person can take before medical help arrives. The first step is to immobilize the leg as much as possible. Keeping the area still usually helps to temporarily alleviate some of the pain, so techniques like splinting are often used until further treatment can be obtained. Ice or cool compresses can sometimes help with swelling as well as the pain. In addition, if possible, one should elevate the leg with pillows or blankets. The person with the broken leg should be kept comfortable.

Once in a medical facility, the doctors can treat the break in several ways depending on the severity and the location of the break. If the bone is out of place, then the doctor will first need to set it back into alignment. Pain medication will be given before the procedure to ensure comfort.

Often, an orthopedic doctor, one who specializes in bones, will be called in to help set the bone properly or to do surgery, if necessary. After bones are set back into place, they will be held in place by plaster casts or splints or by metal pins, screws, plates, or rods, which help to keep the bones straight for proper healing. The rods are sometimes placed in either the femur or the tibia for strength after a break.

No matter how the leg is set, medication will likely be provided by the doctor to help alleviate pain. Follow-up appointments will be necessary to ensure proper healing.

Prevention & Prophylaxis

Prevention of broken bones is often a matter of common sense. Since many broken bones are sustained in motor vehicle accidents, for example, care to ensure safety should be a priority. Wearing seat belts, putting children in approved safety seats, and safe driving are all methods of precaution that can be taken.

Similarly, when participating in sports, care needs to be taken to wear appropriate safety gear and not to engage in activities over one's ability level. Finally, one should follow directions given by the doctor for using canes, walkers, or other assistive devices when needed.

Getting screened for diseases that can cause weakened bones, such as osteoporosis, for example, is also a good idea. Nonetheless, bones that are broken, but treated right away, are likely to heal.