Growth Plate Fractures

Especially if your kid plays sports, get a handle on growth plate injuries.

Growth plate fractures may require a cast
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While kids who play sports may be more susceptible to growth plate fractures, any child can experience this injury, and its potential for lifelong effects. Here's what parents need to know about growth plate injuries.

What Are Growth Plate Fractures?

While kids' bones are growing, there is a bit of cartilage at each end of their long bones, near the joints. (Long bones are all the bones in the body that are longer than they are wide.

They are in the arms, legs, feet, and fingers.) Those are the growth plates (also called physis). When bones finish growing, around the end of puberty, these areas of cartilage become solid bone. The bones in the fingers are most at risk for growth plate injuries, followed by those in the forearms and the lower legs.

Since cartilage is not as strong as bone, it is more susceptible to injury. A growth plate fracture can happen through an acute event, like a fall or some other blow to the body—say, being struck by a ball or by another player in a game. But overuse can also cause growth plate fractures. In an adult, an overuse injury might mean a sprain, while a kid could experience a fracture.

Since boys have a longer window of growing time, they are more likely to experience fractures—about twice as likely as girls. About one in three growth plate injuries happen while kids are playing sports.

Another 20 percent happen during recreational activities, like biking and sledding.

Symptoms of Growth Plate Fractures

It's important that growth plate injuries be treated promptly. If they don't heal properly, they could cause the growth plate to close up too early. That could mean one of a child's limbs ends up being shorter than the other.

Or the bone could become deformed.

Get medical help if your child is experiencing any of these symptoms. Remember that she could experience a growth plate injury without an acute incident.

  • Pain in a limb or joint (especially if it's persistent or severe, or you know there was an accident such as a fall)
  • Deformity: the limb looks crooked or bent
  • She can't move the limb, or it hurts to put pressure on it
  • Swelling or warmth near a joint (at the end of the bone—this is right where the growth plate is)

Treating Growth Plate Fractures

Doctors usually use an X-ray to check for a fracture and see how severe the injury is. They might X-ray the non-injured side of the body along with the injured limb so they can compare the two. Sometimes growth plate injuries are mild and the treatment is easy: resting the injured part of the body and keeping weight off it. "Easy," of course, is a relative term when we're talking about keeping an active kid still!

For more severe injuries (they are usually rated on a 5-point scale called the Salter-Harris system), treatment might require a cast or splint.

In about 10 percent of these cases, a doctor will have to move the bones back into place, either by applying pressure with her hands, or with surgery. The recovery time can be anywhere from a few weeks to several months, and might include physical therapy.

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