Conditions & Treatments

Fractures

A fracture is a partial or complete bone break. When a fracture occurs, it is classified as either open or closed.

Fractures

What is a fracture?

A fracture is a partial or complete break in the bone. When a fracture occurs, it is classified as either open or closed:

  • Open fracture (also called compound fracture). The bone exits and is visible through the skin, or a deep wound that exposes the bone through the skin.

  • Closed fracture (also called simple fracture). The bone is broken, but the skin is intact.

Fractures have a variety of names. Some of the common types that may occur are:

  • Greenstick fracture. This is an incomplete fracture. A portion of the bone is broken, causing the other side to bend. This type of fracture is more common in children.

  • Transverse fracture. The break is in a straight line perpendicular to the bone.

  • Spiral fracture. The break spirals around the bone; common in a twisting injury.

  • Oblique fracture. The break is diagonal across the bone.

  • Compression fracture. The bone is crushed, causing the broken bone to be wider or flatter in appearance.

  • Comminuted. The break is in 3 or more pieces and fragments are present at the fracture site.

  • Segmental. The same bone is fractured in two places, so there is a "floating" segment of bone.

Greenstick fracture
Greenstick fracture. Click Image to Enlarge

Transverse fracture
Transverse fracture. Click Image to Enlarge

Spiral fracture
Spiral fracture. Click Image to Enlarge

Oblique fracture
Oblique fracture. Click Image to Enlarge

Compression fracture
Compression fracture. Click Image to Enlarge

What causes a fracture?

Fractures occur when there is more force applied to the bone than the bone can absorb. Breaks in bones can occur from falls, trauma, or as a result of a direct blow or kick to the body.

What are the symptoms of a fracture?

The following are the most common symptoms of a fracture. However, each individual may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:

  • Pain in the injured area

  • Swelling in the injured area

  • Obvious deformity in the injured area

  • Difficulty using or moving the injured area in a normal manner

  • Warmth, bruising, or redness in the injured area

The symptoms of a broken bone may resemble other medical conditions or problems. Always consult your doctor for a diagnosis.

How is a fracture diagnosed?

In addition to a complete medical history (including asking how the injury occurred) and physical examination, diagnostic procedures for a fracture may include the following:

  • X-ray. A diagnostic test that uses invisible electromagnetic energy beams to produce images of internal tissues, bones, and organs onto film.

  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). A diagnostic procedure that uses a combination of large magnets, radiofrequencies, and a computer to produce detailed images of organs and structures within the body.

  • Computed tomography scan (also called a CT or CAT scan). A diagnostic imaging procedure that uses a combination of X-rays and computer technology to produce horizontal, or axial, images (often called slices) of the body. A CT scan shows detailed images of any part of the body, including the bones, muscles, fat, and organs. CT scans are more detailed than general X-rays.

Treatment for a fracture

Specific treatment for a fracture will be determined by your doctor based on:

  • Location and type of fracture

  • Your age, overall health, and medical history

  • Extent of the condition

  • Your tolerance for specific medications, procedures, or therapies

  • Expectations for the course of the condition

  • Your opinion or preference

The goal of treatment is to control the pain, promote healing, prevent complications, and restore normal use of the fractured area.

An open fracture (one in which the bone exits and is visible through the skin, or a deep wound that exposes the bone through the skin) is considered an emergency. Seek immediate medical attention for this type of fracture.

Treatment may include:

  • Splint or cast. This immobilizes the injured area to promote bone alignment and healing to protect the injured area from motion or use.

  • Medication. This is taken to control pain.

  • Traction. Traction is the application of a force to stretch certain parts of the body in a specific direction. Traction consists of pulleys, strings, weights, and a metal frame attached over or on the bed. The purpose of traction is to stretch the muscles and tendons around the broken bone to allow the bone ends to align and heal.

  • Surgery. Surgery may be required to put certain types of broken bones back into place. Occasionally, internal fixation (metal rods or pins located inside the bone) or external fixation devices (metal rods or pins located outside of the body) are used to hold the bone fragments in place to allow alignment and healing.

Smoking and the musculoskeletal system

Smoking takes a significant toll on your musculoskeletal system. Tobacco and nicotine increase the risk of bone fractures and interfere with the healing process, according to a growing body of research. Nicotine can slow fracture healing, estrogen effectiveness, and can counter the antioxidant properties of vitamin C. According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, research on the topic of smoking and its effect on the musculoskeletal system was reviewed. Some of the orthopedic problems caused by smoking include:

  • More severe disk degeneration

  • Increased risk for a hip fracture with age

  • An association with low back pain

  • Weakened spinal ligaments

  • Reduced production of bone cells

  • Faster bone loss in postmenopausal women

  • Fractures take longer to heal

  • Association with rotator cuff disease 

  • Longer healing time for surgical incisions

  • More post-surgery complications

  • Delayed spinal fusion

However, quitting smoking seems to improve the healing process in many cases.

Treatment Programs


Massachusetts General Hospital understands that a variety of factors influence patients' health care decisions. That's just one reason why we're dedicated to ensuring patients understand their diagnosis and treatment options. Because a single option might not serve all patients, we offer a wide range of coordinated treatments and related services across the hospital. Patients should consult with their primary care doctor or other qualified health care provider for medical advice and diagnosis information.

Select a treatment program for more information:



Imaging

  • Pediatric Imaging
    The Pediatric Imaging Program at Massachusetts General Hospital Imaging specializes in ensuring the safety and comfort of child patients while providing the latest technology and the expertise of specialized pediatric radiologists.
  • Bone and Joint Imaging and Intervention
    The Bone and Joint Imaging and Intervention Program at Massachusetts General Hospital Imaging offers state-of-the-art diagnostic exams including MRI and CT, interpretation by specialty-trained radiologists, and image-guided procedures for the bones, joints, and spine.
MassGeneral Hospital for Children

  • Pediatric Orthopaedics
    The MassGeneral Hospital for Children Orthopaedics Service provides clinical care to infants, children and adolescents, from birth to college age, for the entire spectrum of musculoskeletal problems.
  • Pediatric Anesthesia
    The Pediatric Anesthesia team at MassGeneral Hospital for Children specializes in caring for children before, during and after surgery and other procedures.
Department of Medicine

  • Geriatric Inpatient Fracture Service (GiFTS)
    The Geriatric Inpatient Fracture Service (GiFTS) helps care for patients 65 years and older who are hospitalized because of orthopaedic injuries. Physicians from the Geriatric Medicine Unit work closely with physicians from the Orthopaedic Trauma Service along with staff from Nursing, Anesthesia, Physical Therapy, and Nutrition and Food Services to help patients avoid complications following surgery address underlying medical needs, strengthen overall health and provide patient and family-centered education.
Department of Orthopaedics

  • Podiatry Service
    Our Podiatrists provide state-of-the-art outpatient and surgical care treating conditions like hammertoes, Morton’s neuroma, Plantar Fasciitis, geriatric foot care and bunions.
  • Foot and Ankle Service
    Our Best of Boston Foot and Ankle surgeons provide personalized patient care to treat Achilles tendonitis, tears, bunions, diabetic foot problems and ankle arthritis using the latest surgical techniques.
  • Spine Service
    Our Harvard Spine doctors use non-operative therapies as well as advanced surgical techniques to treat scoliosis, spinal disorders, and spinal deformities and injuries helping their patients can get back to doing the things they love.
  • Shoulder Service
    Our Harvard Shoulder surgeons provide compassionate care to treat shoulder arthritis, shoulder fractures, shoulder nerve injuries and rotator cuff problems, helping patients get back to their daily activities.
  • Sports Medicine Service
    Our Boston Sports Medicine team provides comprehensive treatment and rehabilitation for sports-related injuries from recreational, amateur and professional sports. Our Harvard faculty specialize in ACL, MCL and meniscus injuries in athletes and non-athletes.

View all departments

Departments and Centers at Mass General have a reputation for excellence in patient care. View a list of all departments.