Treatment of a broken leg depends on the location and severity of the injury. Surgical repair uses metal pins and plates to hold the fragments together.
A broken leg (leg fracture) is a break or crack in one of the bones in your leg. Common causes include falls, motor vehicle accidents and sports injuries.
Treatment of a broken leg depends on the location and severity of the injury. A severely broken leg may require metal pins and plates to hold the fragments together. Less severe breaks may be treated with a cast or splint. In all cases, prompt diagnosis and treatment are critical to complete healing.
The thighbone (femur) is the strongest bone in the body. It is usually obvious when the thighbone is broken because it takes so much force to break. But a break in the shinbone (tibia) or in the bone that runs alongside the shinbone (fibula) may be less obvious.
Signs and symptoms of a broken leg may include:
Toddlers or young children who break a leg may start limping or simply stop walking, even if they can't explain why.
If you or your child has any signs or symptoms of a broken leg, seek care right away. Delays in diagnosis and treatment can result in problems later, including poor healing.
Seek emergency medical attention for any leg fracture from a high-impact trauma, such as a car or motorcycle accident. Fractures of the thighbone are severe, potentially life-threatening injuries that require emergency medical services to help protect the area from further damage and to provide safe transfer to a local hospital.
A broken leg can be caused by:
Stress fractures are often the result of repetitive stress to the leg bones from physical activities, such as:
Contact sports, such as hockey and football, also may pose a risk of direct blows to the leg, which can result in a fracture.
Stress fractures outside of sport situations are more common in people who have:
Complications of a broken leg may include:
A broken leg can't always be prevented. But these basic tips may reduce your risk:
During the physical exam, the health care provider will inspect the affected area for tenderness, swelling, deformity or an open wound.
X-rays can usually pinpoint the location of the break and determine the extent of injury to any adjacent joints. Occasionally, computerized tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is needed for more detailed images. For instance, you may need a CT scan or an MRI for a suspected stress fracture, since X-rays often fail to reveal this injury.
Treatment of a broken leg will vary, depending on the type and location of the break. Stress fractures may require only rest and immobilization, while other breaks may need surgery for best healing. Fractures are classified into one or more of the following categories:
Treatment for a broken leg usually begins in an emergency room or urgent care clinic. Here, health care providers typically evaluate the injury and immobilize the leg with a splint. If you have a displaced fracture, the care team may need to move the pieces of bone back into their proper positions before applying a splint — a process called reduction. Some fractures are splinted at first to allow swelling to subside. A cast is then used once there is less swelling.
For a broken bone to heal properly, its movement needs to be restricted. A splint or a cast is often used to immobilize the broken bone. You may need to use crutches or a cane to keep weight off the affected leg for at least 6 weeks.
A pain reliever such as acetaminophen (Tylenol, others) or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB, others), or a combination of the two, can reduce pain and inflammation. If you're experiencing severe pain, your health care provider might prescribe stronger pain medications.
After your cast or splint is removed, you'll likely need rehabilitation exercises or physical therapy to reduce stiffness and restore movement in the injured leg. Because you haven't moved your leg for a while, you may even have stiffness and weakened muscles in uninjured areas. Rehabilitation can help, but it may take up to several months — or even longer — for complete healing of severe injuries.
Immobilization with a cast or splint heals most broken bones. However, you may need surgery to implant plates, rods or screws to maintain proper position of the bones during healing. This type of surgery is more likely in people who have:
Some injuries are treated with a metal frame outside the leg attached to the bone with pins. This device provides stability during the healing process and is usually removed after about 6 to 8 weeks. There's a risk of infection around the surgical pins.
Depending on the severity of the break, your health care provider may recommend examination by an orthopedic surgeon.
You may want to write a list that includes:
For a broken leg, some basic questions to ask your care provider include:
Don't hesitate to ask any other questions you have.
Your health care provider is likely to ask you questions, including:
For injuries to children, the evaluation often includes routine questions to rule out concerns for intentional injury or child abuse.