How to Recognize and Treat a Broken Leg

Know When to Seek Emergency Medical Attention

Broken legs can range from simply painful injuries to life-threatening emergencies. As with many common injuries, you must learn how to recognize a broken leg in order to determine how best to respond to it. 

Signs and Symptoms of a Broken Leg 

Signs and symptoms of a broken leg include:

  • Pain (almost always present)
  • Swelling
  • Bruising
  • Deformity (leg appears out-of-place)
  • Numbness or tingling
  • Broken skin with bone visible
  • Limited mobility of the leg

How to Treat a Broken Leg

There are several important steps involved in properly treating a broken leg before seeking medical attention. First and foremost, in the event that you suspect a leg broken above the knee, call 911 immediately. Otherwise, continue on with these step-by-step instructions if you suspect a broken leg.

  1. Safety first! Make sure the victim is in a safe location. It is more important to worry about rescuers' and the victim's ongoing safety than to worry about the broken leg. Follow universal precautions and wear personal protective equipment if you have it.
  2. Check ABC's. Make sure the victim has an Airway, is Breathing, and has Circulation. Broken legs can be very distracting injuries. Most of the time, however, they look worse than they actually are.
  3. Control bleeding. If the victim is bleeding from their injuries, take steps to safely control the bleeding.
  1. Look for other injuries. If a victim is injured in one area that might be injured in another area. If a victim shows signs of injury to the head, neck, or back, DO NOT move the victim.
  2. Cover any broken skin with sterile dressings. If needed, the wound can be rinsed -- try to use sterile water or saline solution.
  1. If an ambulance is responding, have the victim remain still and wait for the ambulance. If an ambulance is unavailable, the broken leg may need to be splinted. Be sure to immobilize the joints (knee, ankle, hip) above and below the break. Do not wrap the leg too tight.
  2. Put ice on the break to reduce swelling. Put a sheet or towel between the ice and the skin to prevent frostbite. Leave ice on for 15 minutes, then remove ice for 15 minutes.
  3. Elevate the leg above the level of the heart, if possible.
  4. Lay the victim on his or her back to reduce the chance of shock. Cover the victim with a blanket.

Additional Tips For Treating a Broken Leg 

  • Remember, DO NOT move a victim with suspected head, neck, or back injuries unless it is to keep rescuers or the victim safe.
  • DO NOT move a victim of a broken leg unless necessary for the safety of rescuers or victim.
  • DO NOT straighten a broken leg or change its position unless the victim's foot (on the leg with the break) is cold, blue, numb, or paralyzed. Only attempt to return a deformed leg to the anatomical position.
  • Call 911 for a leg broken above the knee, a broken hip, a broken pelvis, a neck or back injury, or a head injury. It is still acceptable to summon an ambulance for a leg broken below the knee, but call on the ambulance agency's non-emergency line.
  • If splinting the broken leg, try using a broom handle, long wooden spoon, tube from a vacuum cleaner, or a jack handle from the car to stabilize the splint. 

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