A fracture is a broken bone. Doctors will use different methods to repair bone fractures depending on their location, type, and severity.
Fractures can be complete or partial. Some require surgery or metal plates, while others may only need a brace.
Everyone who experiences a fractured bone will heal differently. The healing process will depend on the nature and extent of the injury, the stability of fracture fixation, and biological processes, so a proper healing process is crucial.
In this article, we look at how doctors treat bone fractures, the science behind three main stages of bone healing, and home remedies to speed up bone repair.
If a person with a fractured bone does not get treatment from a doctor, there is a chance that the bone will heal in an unusual position.
One of the goals of treatment is to restore the normal anatomy so a doctor will manipulate and reset each part of the bone into its correct anatomic position.
People can have bone fractures with different degrees of severity, and while some may be minor, others can lead to serious complications.
No matter how severe a bone fracture is, a person should always see their doctor for treatment to avoid future complications, such as abnormal healing, loss of function, or bone weaknesses.
Other complications of improperly treated bone fractures include:
- the formation of a blood clot in nearby blood vessels
- infection from the injury
- damage to the skin, tissues, or muscles around the fracture
- swelling of a nearby joint due to bleeding into the joint space
If someone fractures a long bone, such as the thigh bone (femur), they might experience a severe complication called a fat embolism. Here, fat globules are released into the bloodstream and deposited in the lung capillaries, leading to respiratory distress. If left untreated, it can be fatal.
Depending on the type and location of the fractured bone, a doctor may recommend the following treatments:
After repositioning the bone, doctors will typically immobilize the broken bone with a plaster or fiberglass cast. A cast will allow the bone to heal in the correct position.
Doctors often use casts to treat fractures in the leg, foot, arm, and wrist bones.
Functional cast or brace
A functional cast or brace differs from traditional cast immobilization in that it allows limited and controlled movement of nearby joints.
Usually, doctors put an initial cast on the limb with the broken bone and remove it after some time. Then, the doctor will put the limb in a functional brace, which allows its early movement and mobility.
When a person has a severe bone fracture, doctors may need to perform surgery to correct the break. In an open reduction procedure, doctors expose and reposition the bone by hand.
People may require open reduction if they have complex fractures or fractures that are unsuitable for treatment with a cast.
There are two kinds of open reduction:
- Open reduction with internal fixation: This procedure involves attaching special screws or metal plates to the outer surface of the bone. The surgeon may also position metal rods in the center of the bone to hold the bone pieces together.
- Open reduction with external fixation: This procedure involves placing an external device on to the injured limb after surgery. The surgeon places metal pins or screws above and below the fracture site to support and immobilize the bone while it heals.
When someone breaks a bone, they typically go through three stages of healing:
1. The inflammatory phase
The inflammatory phase, also called fracture hematoma formation, is the first stage of healing that occurs immediately after the injury.
According to one study, approximately 48 hours after the injury, blood vessels torn by the fracture release blood. This blood starts to clot and forms a fracture hematoma. Because of the disruption of blood flow to the bone, some bone cells around the fracture die.
This inflammatory stage ends approximately one week after the fracture.
2. The repairing phase
The repairing or reparative phase begins within the first few days after the bone fracture and lasts for about 2 – 3 weeks. During this time, the body develops cartilage and tissue in and around the fracture site.
The tissue forms a soft collar at the broken ends of the bones, and the tissue grows until the two ends meet. These growths are known as calluses, and their purpose is to stabilize the fracture. Over the following weeks, a bony callus made of spongy bone called trabecular bone will replace the tissue callus.
3. Bone remodeling
The remodeling phase is the final phase in fracture healing.
At this stage, solid bone replaces spongy bone, completing the healing process. Sometimes, the outer surface of the bone remains slightly swollen for some time, which should resolve on its own.
Depending on the severity of the fracture and how well a person follows their doctor's recommendations, bones can take between weeks to several months to heal.
According to the Cleveland Clinic, the average bone healing time is between 6 – 8 weeks, although it can vary depending on the type and site of the injury.
People usually stop feeling pain long before the broken bone has healed and the limb is ready for regular activity.
The best way to help bone fractures heal is to rest and limit the use of the injured limb.
Other methods a person can use to reduce healing time and speed up bone repair include the following:
Take protein supplements
As a large part of a bone is composed of protein, taking protein supplements can help the bone to rebuild and heal itself.
People with a protein deficit may develop a rubbery callus around the fracture instead of a solid callus.
Antioxidants remove free radicals that are generated by tissue damage. Because bone fractures cause tissue damage, taking antioxidant supplements may help with bone healing.
People can find antioxidants in supplements that contain vitamins E and C, lycopene, and alpha-lipoic acid.
Take mineral supplements
These supplements may speed up callus formation, increase the production of bone protein, and accelerate the bone healing process.
Take vitamin supplements
Vitamins are also essential for bone rebuilding as they promote most of the cellular processes and reactions that occur in bone.
Vitamins C, D, and K play vital roles in the fracture healing process. Vitamin B is essential for energy production.
Take herbal supplements
People can also use herbal supplements to speed fracture healing.
Some people say that Symphytum (comfrey), arnica, and horsetail grass are potentially helpful herbs. However, always use herbs with caution, as large amounts of these herbs can be toxic.
Always speak to a doctor before using exercise as a way to speed up bone healing, as it will only be appropriate at certain stages of the healing process.
However, if performed under a doctor's supervision, exercise can improve blood flow to the injured site, help to rebuild muscle around it, and speed up bone fracture healing. Furthermore, some people may regain limb function through exercise.
People who smoke may experience delayed bone healing. Sometimes, this may lead to a situation where the bone does not heal and develops a non-union fracture or takes longer to heal.
When a bone fractures, the first thing a doctor will do is set it back to its original position. They can use a variety of treatments to achieve this, which may or may not include surgery.
The extent of a person's injury and their compliance with doctor's recommendations will determine how well and how quickly the fracture heals.
After surgery or having a brace or cast removed, many people will find that they have limited mobility for some time.
Many people will also lose muscle in the injured limb during recovery, but with specific exercises, they can often regain muscle strength and flexibility in the area.