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Leg Fracture


What is a leg fracture?

A leg fracture is a break in any of the 3 long bones of your leg. The femur is the largest bone and goes from your hip to your knee. The fibula and tibia are the 2 bones in your lower leg that go from your knee to your ankle.

What causes a leg fracture?

A leg fracture is often caused by an injury. Car and sports accidents are common causes of leg fractures. Stress fractures can occur from repetitive use or overuse. They are tiny cracks that form in long bones, such as your tibia. Osteoporosis (brittle bones) can increase your risk for a leg fracture if you fall.

What are the different types of leg fractures?

  • Nondisplaced: The bone cracks or breaks but stays in place.
  • Displaced: The bone breaks into 2 pieces.
  • Open fracture: The broken bone breaks through your skin.

What are the signs and symptoms of a leg fracture?

  • Pain that worsens when you move your leg
  • Decreased ability or inability to move your leg
  • Leg pain that worsens when you stand on your injured leg
  • Deformity (your leg is shaped differently than normal).
  • Swelling, bruising, or blistering in the area of your leg injury
  • Pain when you touch the injured area
  • Weakness or loss of feeling in your leg

How is a leg fracture diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will examine your leg. He may touch areas of your leg to see if you have decreased feeling. He will check for any open breaks in the skin. He may check your ability to move your leg. You may need any of the following tests:

  • X-ray: This is a picture taken to check your leg for broken bones.
  • CT scan: This test is also called a CAT scan. An x-ray machine uses a computer to take pictures of your leg. The pictures may show broken bones or other leg injuries. You may be given dye before the pictures are taken to help healthcare providers see the pictures better. Tell the healthcare provider if you have ever had an allergic reaction to contrast dye.
  • MRI: This scan uses powerful magnets and a computer to take pictures of your leg. An MRI may show a fracture or other leg injuries. You may be given dye to help the pictures show up better. Tell the healthcare provider if you have ever had an allergic reaction to contrast dye. Do not enter the MRI room with anything metal. Metal can cause serious injury. Tell the healthcare provider if you have any metal in or on your body.
  • Bone scan: You are given a small, safe amount of radioactive dye in an IV. Pictures are then taken of your leg to look for fractures.

How is a leg fracture treated?

Treatment depends on what kind of fracture you have and how bad it is. You may need any of the following:

  • Brace, cast, or splint: A brace, cast, or splint may be put on your leg to decrease your leg movement and hold the broken bones in place. These devices may help decrease pain and prevent further bone damage.
  • Medicine:
    • Pain medicine: You may be given a prescription medicine to decrease pain. Do not wait until the pain is severe before you take this medicine.
    • Antibiotics: This medicine is given to help treat or prevent an infection caused by bacteria.
    • Blood thinners: This medicine helps prevent clots from forming in the blood. Clots can cause strokes, heart attacks, and death. Blood thinners make it more likely for you to bleed or bruise. Use an electric razor and soft toothbrush to help prevent bleeding.
    • Tetanus shot: This is a shot of medicine to prevent you from getting tetanus. You may need this if you have a break in your skin from your injury. You should have a tetanus shot if you have not had one in the past 5 to 10 years.
  • Surgery: If you have an open fracture, you may need debridement before your surgery. This is when your healthcare provider removes damaged and infected tissue and cleans your wound. Debridement is done to help prevent infection and improve healing. Surgery to fix your broken leg may include the following:
    • External fixation: Your healthcare provider will put screws through your skin and into your broken bones. The screws will be secured to a device outside of your leg. External fixation holds your bones together so they can heal. It is often done if you have severe tissue damage or many injuries. You may still need open surgery on your leg to fix injured areas after the external fixation is removed.
    • Open reduction and internal fixation: During internal fixation surgery, your healthcare provider will make an incision in your leg to straighten your broken bones. He will use screws and a metal plate, nails, wires, or rods to hold your broken bones together. This surgery will allow your bones to grow back together.
  • Traction: You may need traction when your broken bones are displaced. Traction pulls on the bones to put them back into place. A pin may be put in your bone or cast and hooked to the traction device. Weights are hung from the traction device to help pull the bones into the right position.

What else may be used to treat my leg fracture?

  • Physical therapy: Your healthcare provider may have you to go to physical therapy. A physical therapist will help you with exercises to improve the movement of your leg. The exercises can also help make your leg bones and muscles stronger.
  • Electrical stimulation: During electrical stimulation, electric currents are placed on your injured leg. The currents help increase the blood flow to your leg to help with healing.
  • Ultrasound therapy: Ultrasound treatments use sound waves directed into your leg. The sound waves work by helping the bones in your leg heal.

What are the risks of a leg fracture?

  • A brace, cast, or splint may increase your risk for skin sores. Even with a cast or surgery, the bones in your leg may not heal properly. During surgery, the nerves, blood vessels, and tissues in your leg may be damaged. You may get an infection or have pain, numbness, or weakness in your leg after surgery. Decreased movement from traction may lead to skin sores or a lung infection. You may get a blood clot in your leg. The clot may travel to your heart or brain and cause life-threatening problems, such as a heart attack or stroke.
  • Without treatment, the bones in your leg may not heal properly. If your fracture heals on its own, your leg may be deformed. You may not be able to move your leg as well as you did before your injury. You may have pain or lose feeling in your leg. You may have tissue damage and get a severe leg infection. Severe infections may lead to a bone infection, and you may need your leg amputated These and other problems may be life-threatening.

What can I do to help my leg fracture heal?

  • Rest: You may need to rest your leg and avoid activities that cause leg pain.
  • Ice: Ice helps decrease swelling and pain. Ice may also help prevent tissue damage. Use an ice pack or put crushed ice in a plastic bag. Cover it with a towel, and place it on your leg for 15 to 20 minutes every hour as directed.
  • Elevation: You may use pillows to keep your leg at or above the level of your heart. Elevation helps decrease swelling and pain, and improves blood flow.

When should I contact my healthcare provider?

  • You have a fever.
  • You have new sores around your brace, cast, or splint.
  • You have new or worsening trouble moving your leg.
  • You notice a foul smell coming from under your cast.
  • You have a new skin rash.
  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.

When should I seek immediate care or call 911?

  • Your cast cracks or is damaged.
  • The pain in your injured leg gets worse even after you rest and take medicine.
  • The skin or toes of your injured leg become swollen, cold, or blue.
  • You have drainage from your surgery wounds or open skin areas.
  • Blood soaks through your bandage.
  • You have no feeling in your leg.
  • Your surgery wounds or open skin areas become red, warm, and swollen.
  • Your leg feels warm, tender, and painful. It may look swollen and red.
  • You suddenly feel lightheaded and short of breath.
  • You have chest pain when you take a deep breath or cough. You may cough up blood.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your caregivers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

© 2016 Truven Health Analytics Inc. Information is for End User's use only and may not be sold, redistributed or otherwise used for commercial purposes. All illustrations and images included in CareNotes® are the copyrighted property of A.D.A.M., Inc. or Truven Health Analytics.

The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.