A broken leg refers to a fracture in any of the three long bones of the leg. These bones include the femur (thigh bone), the tibia (shin bone) and the fibula (calf bone). The patella (knee cap), which is the bone that covers and protects the knee joint in the leg, is susceptible to fracture as well.
Fractures happen when enough force is applied to a bone to break it. This is typically the result of trauma. Falls, sports injuries, and car accidents are the most frequent sources of leg fractures. Sometimes, repetitive overuse of the leg, as in an activity like long distance running will cause a stress fracture. In addition, bones that are weakened by disease processes such as osteoporosis or cancer are more vulnerable to fracture.
A leg fracture can be a painful and debilitating injury that impairs mobility and disrupts normal daily activities. A broken leg may occur as an isolated injury or in conjunction with other soft tissue injuries. Determining the severity of a leg fracture depends upon its location, the degree and type of fracture, and the damage to the surrounding tissues. If not treated promptly a leg fracture can have dangerous complications and result in long lasting impairment.
Signs and symptoms of a broken leg may include:
- Severe pain that worsens with movement
- Obvious deformity or shortening of the affected leg
- Weakness or loss of feeling in the leg
- Inability to walk
In cases of a patellar fracture, more commonly known as a broken kneecap, the symptoms may include pain, swelling, bruising, an inability to straighten the knee, and an inability to walk.
Leg fracture management begins with a history and physical assessment of the injury. During a clinical exam the leg will be evaluated for areas of tenderness, swelling, deformity, presence of an open wound, loss of sensation, and the ability to move. Imaging tests, beginning with an x-ray to confirm the diagnosis as well as pinpoint the location and extent of the break, will be done next. If needed more detailed images, as provided by a CT scan, MRI or a bone scan may be ordered.
Treatment of a broken leg depends on the type, severity, and location of the break. In all cases the fractured sections of bone must be put back into position and prevented from moving out of place using a cast, brace, or splint until the leg is healed. Alignment of the broken bone, known as a “reduction,” can require a surgical procedure. More severe leg fractures often necessitate the surgical placement of temporary pins and external fixation, or internal fixation with metal plates, screws, or rods, along with other modalities to allow healing and restore function.
Fractures can take several weeks to months to heal completely. Recuperation time varies depending on the age and health of the individual as well as the type of fracture. Typically the period of immobilization and non-weight bearing is followed by a transition to partial and then finally full weight bearing. A rehabilitation program involving exercises and a gradual increase in activity levels until the process of healing is complete is enormously beneficial.