Just the thought of breaking a bone can make many of us wince. That’s because most of us associate fractures with a lot of pain, swelling, and disability.
But some fractures can occur more subtly, and their symptoms can be much more difficult to recognize. They still need prompt treatment, though, and if you delay care, you can wind up with far more serious problems and more complex injuries.
At Powell Orthopedics and Sports Medicine in Vestavia Hills, Alabama, Thomas Powell, MD, helps patients get the treatment they need for all types of fractures, tailoring care to the type of fracture, its location, and many other variables. In this post, he offers a brief overview of these subtle fractures, including what symptoms to look for.
Hard-to-detect fractures: What to look for
It’s true that a lot of fractures are associated with severe, sharp pain, followed by a throbbing ache and, usually, a fair amount of swelling. Many fractures, such as arm and leg fractures, can impair your ability to use an affected limb for weight-bearing or other activities.
But other fractures can be more difficult to spot, because they can cause symptoms that may be mistaken for other underlying problems. Compression fractures and stress fractures fall into this category.
Compression fractures are often associated with osteoporosis, which is a degenerative condition that happens when bones lose mass and weaken. In fact, the word osteoporosis literally means “porous bone.”
Compression fractures happen when a bone (vertebra) in the spine weakens and compresses or collapses. While traumatic injuries, such as falls, can cause compression fractures, even simple things, such as lifting something heavy or having a heavy coughing spell, can cause them.
These fractures can cause symptoms like chronic backache or nerve-related pain that radiates into your arms or legs. Over time, compression fractures can affect your posture and cause your spine to curve forward.
A stress fracture is a tiny crack in a bone, typically bones in the legs or feet. These fractures can form as a result of repetitive stress from activities like running or jumping. Some stress fractures are associated with osteoporosis.
Like compression fractures, stress fractures often cause symptoms that are mistaken for other problems, such as muscle strain or foot pain from plantar fasciitis. Pain from a stress fracture tends to be focused in one spot and radiate outward and decrease with rest. There may also be localized swelling.
Cracks and other very tiny fractures can cause mild symptoms as well. These fractures may happen after an injury, such as a fall, and they may be mistaken for a deep bruise or a sprain.
In children, these milder fractures are called “greenstick” fractures, because they tend to happen when the bone is bent — like a green twig — but it doesn’t break. If you have pain that persists following a fall or other injury, it’s important to have it medically evaluated as soon as possible.
Regardless of the symptoms they cause, all fractures are serious injuries, and all require prompt medical treatment. If you delay treatment, the fracture may worsen, which could lead to a far more serious injury that requires more complicated treatments.
Fortunately, most compression fractures, stress fractures, and tiny cracks heal well with conservative treatments, such as:
- Ice application
- Bracing or casting
- Physical therapy
- Medicine to help with pain and inflammation
Before recommending a treatment plan, Dr. Powell uses diagnostic imaging and other tests, such as bone density measurements — which are painless — to design the best plan for you.
Throughout your treatment, you’ll check in with Dr. Powell, so he can evaluate how well you’re healing and adjust your plan if needed. While most mild fractures heal in a matter of weeks, if you have osteoporosis or stress fractures from your active lifestyle, Dr. Powell may recommend ongoing steps to help prevent fractures in the future.
Don’t ignore your symptoms
If you have symptoms of a fracture, scheduling an evaluation is the first step toward getting the care you need to avoid complications. To learn more, call 205-606-5232 or request an appointment online with Powell Orthopedics and Sports Medicine today.