Broken bones can happen to children or teens of any age or activity level. These breaks, also called fractures, can be caused by a variety of injuries, including overuse injuries or acute injuries.
Overuse injuries, such as stress fractures, occur when your child experiences repeated forces on a part of the body without adequate time to rest and recover. Acute injuries result from sudden impact, such as when a limb is bent or compressed. This can happen during sporting activities, trampoline accidents, or falls from playground sets or a bike.
"Unfortunately, bone breaks can happen no matter how careful we are," says Christopher Redman, M.D., Pediatric Orthopedic Surgeon at Children's Health℠ Andrews Institute for Orthopaedics and Sports Medicine. "We have to be aware of our children's activities and make sure they are as safe as possible."
How to tell if a bone is broken versus a sprain or strain
Often when a child falls or is injured, the result can be a strained or sprained muscle or joint. Strains and sprains affect ligaments, muscles and tendons, whereas a fracture is a partial or complete break in the bone.
Symptoms of strains and sprains include:
- Warmth or redness
- Limited range of motion in the injured joint or muscle – however, in many cases, a child is still able to put weight on or use the injured limb
When a bone breaks, the injury can be much more severe. Signs and symptoms of a fracture include:
- Difficulty using or moving the injured limb
- Deformity in the injured area, such as an arm, leg or finger sticking out at an odd angle
While the symptoms of sprains, strains and fractures can be similar, with a broken bone, the child will most likely be unable to put any weight on the limb. An examination from a doctor and imaging tests can confirm your child's diagnosis.
What to do if your child breaks a bone
Overall, breaks to the legs, wrists and forearms are relatively common in children. If you suspect your child has broken a bone:
- Stabilize the limb immediately
- Keep weight off the injured limb
- Help him or her avoid movement, which could cause further injury and pain
- Give your child Motrin or ibuprofen which should help with pain and swelling
- Take your child to the doctor as soon as possible for a proper diagnosis
While there is no way to completely prevent fractures, with proper treatment, fractures in children typically heal without long-term side effects.
How are broken bones treated in children and teens?
The treatment of a broken bone will vary depending on what kind of fracture your child has and its severity. For minor fractures, a simple splint, brace or cast acts as a stabilizer, keeping the fractured bone in place so it can heal.
A more serious injury, such as when a bone is displaced, may require surgery.
Can fractures affect growth plates?
Growth plates are the weakest part of the bone, so injuries there are a common childhood problem. Fractures near a growth plate can be difficult to diagnose. Growth plates are made up of cartilage, not bone, so many breaks do not show up on X-rays. These fractures, however, are treated similarly to other broken bones.
Long-term issues stemming from these injuries are uncommon. Children with growth plate fractures may be followed over time by their physicians, to ensure the injury does not affect their growth, joints or cause arthritis.
How long does it take a child or teen's broken bone to heal?
Although a child's bones are softer than adult bones, a child's broken bone will heal faster than an adult bone. The time it takes for a break to heal will vary depending on which bone is broken but the average recovery takes from three weeks to two months. Fractures generally take longer to heal in teens than they do in children.
Parents can help keep recovery on track by following a few simple steps:
- Follow instructions given by the doctor including office visit follow-ups.
- Some fractures may require close monitoring and weekly appointments to check alignment for the first three weeks.
- Help your child avoid further injury by limiting activity to prevent re-injury or injury to the opposite limb.
"Anytime a kid has a cast, you need to keep two feet on the ground," advises Dr. Redman.
After the cast comes off, your child will likely experience stiffness in the joints around the break. This stiffness can make it difficult to get back into sports, increasing chance of injury. Your child's physician may remove the cast before healing is complete and put on a brace to speed up the process of regaining full range of motion.
"Stiffness tends to be a much bigger problem for adults. Often children get their range of motion back just by using the extremity," says Dr. Redman.
Ensuring your child builds up his or her strength again can help to reduce the risk of follow-up injury. Typically, once a bone is healed, it is healed, and there are no limits on a child's activity.
Children's Health Andrews Institute for Orthopaedics and Sports Medicine offers same day and next day appointments for fractures and acute injuries. With onsite imaging services, our pediatric orthopedic specialists can diagnose and treat fractures quickly and effectively. Learn more about our fracture care services.
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