What Is a Pathologic Fracture?

Find out the possible underlying causes of this type of bone break

A patient with a pathologic fracture of the hip. X-Ray Image © Jonathan Cluett, MD

A pathologic fracture occurs when a bone breaks in an area that was already weakened by another disease (and, therefore, was more susceptible to fracturing). Causes of weakened bone include osteoporosis, tumors, infection, and certain inherited bone disorders. And these are just a few causes: There are dozens of diseases and conditions that can lead to a pathologic fracture.

How They Usually Occur

Typically, when a person breaks a bone, it's due to an aggressive act that involves sudden impact.

For instance, it's not uncommon for a bone to break during an intense contact sport like football or hockey, during a car accident, or when falling accidentally.

A pathologic fracture is different in that it usually occurs during a normal, routine activity. For example, it might happen while you're brushing your teeth, taking a shower, or going to the grocery store. A bone cyst might grow to a significant size and eat away a major portion of bone so that the bone can no longer support normal bodily function.

How to Know Whether You Have a Pathological Fracture

Since you often can't see what's going on underneath the skin when you experience an injury, it can be hard to know whether a bone break is what's causing you pain, and if so, which kind of bone break it is. So go see your doctor for an evaluation to find out. 

Symptoms of any kind of fracture might include pain that's mild to severe, a limb that looks out of place, bruising, swelling, tenderness, numbness or tingling, and/or difficulty moving a limb.

Your physician may recommend an X-ray to determine whether or not a bone is broken. 

But how do you know whether the fracture is pathological or not? The bottom line: Any patient who experiences a fracture without an injury that would normally cause the bone the break should be suspected to have a pathologic fracture.

Figuring Out the Underlying Cause

Many tests can be performed to help determine the cause of a pathologic fracture. Some of these include:

  • Laboratory tests (including blood count analysis and calcium levels)
  • Imaging tests (including bone scans and MRIs)
  • Bone biopsy (a sample of the bone is obtained, either at the time of fracture repair or before—this test can be helpful especially when a tumor or infection is suspected as a cause)

Treatment Plan

To treat the fracture, itself, you may need to wear a cast or splint. Sometimes you might need surgery to put in plates, pins, or screws to keep the bone in place. You may need to rest for a certain period of time and try to avoid doing certain activities that involve that particular part of the body. 

If the fracture is pathological in nature, your doctor will also want to treat the underlying cause of the bone break to help prevent it from happening again. Treatment of a pathologic fracture is highly dependent on the cause of the weakened bone. Some causes of a pathologic fracture may weaken the bone, but not alter the healing properties of the bone. On the other hand, some causes of a pathologic fracture may prevent normal healing of the bone.

As a result, some pathologic fractures require the same treatment as a normal fracture, while others may require highly specialized care.

Source: 

"Fractures." National Institutes of Health 5 Jul 17.

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