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Fractures

8-minute read

Call triple-zero (000) and ask for an ambulance or go to hospital immediately if bone is visible through the skin, if there is heavy bleeding or if the injured area is an unusual colour or shape.

Key facts

  • A fracture is a broken bone, which is usually caused by trauma; it could result from a minor injury if you have weak bones.
  • If you think you may have a fracture, see your doctor or go to the emergency department as soon as possible.
  • Use a splint to keep the injured area still. Apply ice and keep it elevated until you see a doctor.
  • A fracture is usually diagnosed with an x-ray.
  • Fractures are usually treated with a cast and sometimes surgery.

What is a bone fracture?

A bone fracture is when the force of a blow or fall causes a bone to break. Fractures are especially common in children.

There are different types of bone fracture, such as:

  • a simple fracture — where the break goes all the way through the bone
  • a greenstick fracture — where the bone is broken on one side, and only bent on the other
  • a displaced fracture — where a broken piece of bone has moved out of its usual position
  • a hairline or stress fracture — a crack in the bone from repeated movement or stress
  • a closed fracture — where the skin over the bone is intact
  • an open fracture — where the skin has been pierced by the broken bone

When should I go to the emergency department?

Fractured bones require medical attention. If you think you may have a fracture, see your doctor or go to the emergency department.

Call an ambulance or go to the emergency department immediately if:

  • your arm or leg has been injured and is an unusual colour or shape
  • you have severe pain
  • the injured area is bleeding heavily
  • bone is visible through the skin

Call triple zero (000) for an ambulance if the fracture was caused by a major accident, if the person is unconscious or if they might have a back, neck or head injury.

FIND A HEALTH SERVICE — The Service Finder can help you find doctors, pharmacies, hospitals and other health services.

What should I do while waiting for the ambulance?

While waiting for the ambulance:

  1. Keep the injured person as still as possible.
  2. Try to stop any bleeding, cover any wounds and check for other fractures.
  3. Put a splint on the fractured limb so it can’t move.
  4. Bandage the limb to hold the splint in place and prevent movement of the joints above and below the fracture.
  5. Every 15 minutes, check that the bandages are not too tight — the hand or foot shouldn’t become cold or discoloured.

What are the symptoms of a bone fracture?

Symptoms at the site of a bone fracture may include:

  • pain
  • swelling
  • an unusual shape of the limb
  • bruising or discolouration
  • difficulty moving the limb normally
  • weakness in the limb

Babies and young children might cry and refuse to move the injured area.

CHECK YOUR SYMPTOMS — Use the Symptom Checker and find out if you need to seek medical help.

What causes bone fractures?

The most common cause of bone fractures is trauma, such as a sporting injury, motor vehicle accident, or a fall. In athletes, overuse and repetitive motion can also place stress on a bone and cause it to fracture.

Minor injuries can cause fractures if you have a condition that weakens your bones and allows them to break more easily. Some examples are osteoporosis and some types of cancer.

How is a fracture diagnosed?

A doctor will examine the injured area. You will usually need to have an x-ray.

Occasionally, if the x-ray doesn’t show a fracture, you may need to have a bone scan or CT scan.

How is a fracture treated?

First aid

Before you see the doctor:

  • use a splint or sling to stop the injured limb from moving
  • put ice on the injured area
  • keep the injured limb elevated
  • take pain-relieving medicine, such as paracetamol or ibuprofen

Never try to push the bone into place by yourself.

Treatment of the fracture

Once a fracture has been diagnosed, you will usually need to wear a cast. This keeps the injured area still so the bone can heal properly. You might need a full cast, or a partial cast (also known as a backslab) held in place with a bandage. Your doctor will tell you how long you need to wear the cast for.

If the broken bone has moved out of its usual position, you will need to have a procedure to put it back in place. You might need surgery for this.

Care for the fracture while the bone heals

While your bone is healing, it’s important to:

Can fractures be prevented?

Accidents can cause fractures. Visit Kidsafe Australia to find out how you can prevent accidents involving children.

Older people are at risk of a fracture if they fall. Read more about things you can do to prevent falls.

If you are at risk of osteoporosis, it’s important to get tested so you can be treated if necessary. This can lower your risk of a fracture.

What are the complications of a fracture?

If a broken bone moves out of place, it may damage a nerve or blood vessel. This needs urgent surgery.

If a fracture occurs at a joint, it could cause osteoarthritis.

In children, a bone fracture can sometimes injure the growth plate. This is the area of the bone that is responsible for growth. A fracture in this area could affect how your child’s arm or leg grows. However, this is usually not a problem if the fracture is treated early.

Other possible complications include:

Resources and support

If you think someone may have a fracture and you’re not sure what to do, you can call healthdirect on 1800 022 222 at any time to speak to a registered nurse (known as NURSE-ON-CALL in Victoria) for more information and advice.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: November 2022


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