Fracture vs. Break: Is One Worse Than the Other?

fracture bone
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A fracture is a broken bone. A broken bone is a fracture.

While many people believe that a fracture is a "hairline break," or a certain type of broken bone, this is not true. A fracture and a broken bone are the same thing! To your physician, these words can be used interchangeably. While there are many types of fractures, or broken bones, there are other ways to describe fractures that give more specific meaning to the problem.

Both of these words mean that the normal bone structure has been disrupted. This does not imply a certain type of treatment, but in general, bones heal best when immobilized. Therefore treatment of a broken bone may require some type of intervention.

Why Bones Break

Broken bones occur for one of three reasons.

  • Too Much Energy: This means that the amount of energy being absorbed by the bone exceeds the strength of the bone. Common reasons for these types of fractures include falls, automobile accidents, and sports injuries.
  • Too Much Repetitive Stress: These injuries, also called stress fractures occur not as the result of a single about of force applied to the bone, but rather repeated stress to the bone that causes it to eventually fail. Much like you can bend a paperclip back and forth a few times, eventually it will snap, the same can happen with bone. Stress fractures are often see in people like long-distance runners and military recruits.
  • Bone Weakening: Some fractures occur not because of too much energy to too much stress, but because the bone has been weakened. These types of fractures that occur in the setting of bone that has been weakened by an underlying condition are called pathologic fractures. The most common pathology that weakens bone is osteoporosis or bone thinning. Other causes of pathologic fractures include tumors, infections, and other bone disorders.

    Treatment of Broken Bones

    Once a fracture has been identified, the proper treatment must be undertaken. Proper treatment depends on a number of factors including the type of fracture, the location of the injury, and the patient's individual needs. Treatments that are sometimes used for people who have sustained a fracture include:

    • Casting or Splinting: Most broken bones will heal with protection and immobilization. The best way to protect or immobilize a  broken bone will vary depending on the bone that was injured. In many cases a cast or a splint will be used to protect the injured bone and prevent it from moving. In some situations, the bone must first be reset (a procedure called a fracture reduction) if the bone is not aligned in proper position. In this case, the individual with the fracture is given some type of anesthesia, and the bone is then repositioned by your doctor, and then held in place with a case or a splint.
    • Surgical Treatment: Surgery is used most often when the bone cannot be held in proper position without a surgical procedure. Typically, some type of implant can be used to hold the repositioned bone in proper position. These implants may include plates and screws, metal pins, or rods.

      Healing Bones Quickly

      Broken bones may heal at different rates, and sometimes activity can be resumed even if the bone is not fully healed. Therefore, answering the question "how long does it take bone to heal?" can be challenging. The truth is, it depends.

      Bone healing is dependent on a number of factors, some of which you can control, and others that are the result of the injury, and your own body. If you want to do everything you can to heal as quickly as possible, you should follow your doctor's treatment recommendations carefully, east a healthy diet, and avoid tobacco use entirely.

      A Word From Verywell

      I often see patients surprised to learn that the words fracture and break are often used interchangeably.

      However, this should not imply that all fractures are the same. In fact, there is essentially an unlimited number of types of fractures, and each one may have specific circumstances that alter the recommended treatment.

      That's why the treatment of your fracture may be different from someone else's, even when it's the same bone that is injured. Once you have been diagnosed with a fractured bone, be sure you have a treatment plan that is explained so you can have the best possible recovery from injury!

      Sources:

      Fonseca H, Moreira-Gonçalves D, Coriolano HJ, Duarte JA. "Bone quality: the determinants of bone strength and fragility" Sports Med. 2014 Jan;44(1):37-53.

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