By Courtney Lacey, PT
If you have recently broken a bone, you may be wondering when you will be able to return to all of your normal activities. While it typically takes 4-8 weeks for a bone to heal, you will likely require physiotherapy to help get you back to full function.
How do fractures happen?
A broken bone, also known as a fracture, can occur in many ways. Most often, broken bones are the result of a traumatic mechanism of injury such as a fall, motor vehicle accident or contact during a sporting event. Fractures can also occur from repetitive motions which place stress on the muscles and bones. A common example of this is stress fractures in the legs from running. Finally, fractures can more easily occur in people with osteoporosis – a disease which weakens bones and makes them more likely to break.
How do you know if you have a fracture?
These are some signs and symptoms which may indicate that you have a fracture:
- Immediate and severe pain following a fall or accident
- A “pop” or “click” heard or felt during the incident
- Swelling in the area
- A bump or deformity
- Unable to weight-bear through the injured limb
If you suspect you have a fracture, you will need to see a doctor who will order an X-ray to confirm the diagnosis. Often, those who experience an injury causing a fracture will go to the hospital to be evaluated.
Does a fracture heal?
While bone healing takes approximately 4-8 weeks, the timeline depends on both the person and the type of fracture. In order for a bone to heal properly, it has to first be set in the proper position, which is called reduction. The doctor may be able to reposition the bones without surgery, which is called a closed reduction. Sometimes, surgery may be required to bring the ends of the bone close together, which is called an open reduction. Pins, plates or screws may also be used to keep the bones in place. If the fracture did not cause any part of the bone to shift out of place, no reduction is needed. Once the doctor has determined the bones are in a good position to allow for healing, the area will be immobilized in a cast or a splint.
When can the cast come off?
To determine if you are ready to have the cast removed, you will have an X-ray done with the cast or splint in place. The doctor will look for the formation of a callus, which demonstrates that healing has taken place. The doctor will then remove the cast and may recommend that you have physiotherapy. Physiotherapists play a key role in returning you to your full function as quickly as possible after a fracture.
Why do I need physiotherapy?
There are several reasons why physiotherapy is needed after fracture. Depending on the amount of healing that has occurred, your doctor may have special instructions (how much weight to put through the limb, certain activities to avoid, etc.) that your physiotherapist can help you understand. Once the cast is removed, you may still have some swelling and pain around the fracture site. Physiotherapists may use modalities (such as ultrasound or TENS) to help decrease pain and swelling and improve your mobility and tolerance for using the injured limb in daily activities. If you had surgery, you may also have a scar which creates scar tissue and can disrupt movement. At BodyTech Physiotherapy your therapist will use manual therapy techniques to help mobilize the scar tissue and the areas around the injury as needed to restore normal movement around the surgical site.
Physiotherapy is crucial to improve your functional mobility that you may have lost during your time in the splint or cast. Immobilization over 6-8 weeks will cause loss of range of motion and strength, which will make daily tasks difficult to do. Your physiotherapist will help restore your proper range of motion using manual therapy techniques. While the fracture site will be stiff and sore, you may also lose range of motion at surrounding joints that were moving differently during the healing process. For example, if you have broken your elbow, it is also necessary to assess your shoulder, wrist and hand to ensure that these joints are moving properly. Not correcting the mobility around the fracture site can prolong your healing process and lead to future injuries as well.
Once your range of motion has been restored, you will need to regain strength in order to return to your pre-injury activities. Your physiotherapist will work with you to create a proper strengthening program to re-introduce your bones to loads and stresses that you encounter in your daily activities. Lack of strength or going back to activity too soon puts you at risk of re-injury or prolonging the healing process. Physiotherapy will help you understand the correct exercises to do and will tailor your program to the activities you plan to return to, whether it be high level sport or recreational activity.
How long until I am back to my regular activities?
Your rehab program will vary in length depending on the type of fracture, if there was surgical intervention, and the type of activity you plan to return to. Depending on the nature of the injury, physiotherapy can take anywhere from 8 weeks to one year for more complex fractures. Your physiotherapist will guide you through your rehab program, ensuring you are progressing at an appropriate rate and prevent complications or future injury.