During the physical exam, the doctor will inspect the affected area for tenderness, swelling, deformity or an open wound.
X-rays usually can pinpoint the location of the break and determine the extent of injury to any adjacent joints. Occasionally, your doctor may also recommend more-detailed images using computerized tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).
Treatment of a broken leg will vary, depending on the type and location of the break. Stress fractures may require only rest and immobilization. Fractures are classified into one or more of the following categories:
- Open (compound) fracture. In this type of fracture, the skin is pierced by the broken bone. This is a serious condition that requires immediate, aggressive treatment to decrease your chance of an infection.
- Closed fracture. In closed fractures, the surrounding skin remains intact.
- Incomplete fracture. This term means that the bone is cracked, but it isn't separated into two parts.
- Complete fracture. In complete fractures, the bone has snapped into two or more parts.
- Displaced fracture. In this type of fracture, the bone fragments on each side of the break are not aligned. A displaced fracture may require surgery to realign the bones properly.
- Greenstick fracture. In this type of fracture, the bone cracks but doesn't break all the way through — like when you try to break a green stick of wood. Most broken bones in children are greenstick fractures, because a child's bones are softer and more flexible than those of an adult.
Setting the leg
Initial treatment for a broken leg usually begins in an emergency room or urgent care clinic. Here, doctors typically evaluate your injury and immobilize your leg with a splint. If you have a displaced fracture, your doctor may need to manipulate the pieces back into their proper positions before applying a splint — a process called reduction. Some fractures are splinted for a day to allow swelling to subside before they are casted.
Restricting the movement of a broken bone in your leg is critical to proper healing. To do this, you may need a splint or a cast. And you may need to use crutches or a cane to keep weight off the affected leg for six to eight weeks or longer.
To reduce pain and inflammation, your doctor may recommend an over-the-counter pain reliever, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol, others) or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB, others) or a combination of the two. If you're experiencing severe pain, your doctor might prescribe stronger pain medications.
After your cast or splint is removed, you'll likely need rehabilitation exercises or physical therapy to reduce stiffness and restore movement in the injured leg. Because you haven't moved your leg for a while, you may even have stiffness and weakened muscles in uninjured areas. Rehabilitation can help, but it may take up to several months — or even longer — for complete healing of severe injuries.
Surgical and other procedures
Immobilization heals most broken bones. However, you may need surgery to implant internal fixation devices, such as plates, rods or screws, to maintain proper position of your bones during healing. These internal fixation devices may be necessary if you have the following injuries:
- Multiple fractures
- An unstable or displaced fracture
- Loose bone fragments that could enter a joint
- Damage to the surrounding ligaments
- Fractures that extend into a joint
- A fracture that is the result of a crushing accident
- A fracture in particular areas of your leg, such as your thighbone
For some injuries, your doctor may also recommend an external fixation device — a frame outside your leg attached to the bone with pins. This device provides stability during the healing process and is usually removed after about six to eight weeks. There's a risk of infection around the surgical pins connected to the external fixation device.
Preparing for your appointment
Depending on the severity of the break, your family doctor or an emergency room physician may recommend examination by an orthopedic surgeon.
What you can do
You may want to write a list that includes:
- Detailed descriptions of the symptoms and the precipitating event
- Information about past medical problems
- All the medications and dietary supplements you or your child takes
- Questions you want to ask the doctor
For a broken leg, some basic questions to ask your doctor include:
- What kinds of tests are needed?
- What is the best course of action?
- Is surgery necessary?
- What are the alternatives to the primary approach you're suggesting?
- What restrictions will need to be followed?
- Should I see a specialist?
- What pain medications do you recommend?
Don't hesitate to ask any other questions you have.
What to expect from your doctor
Your doctor is likely to ask you questions, including:
- What happened to cause the symptoms?
- How severe are the symptoms?
- What, if anything, seems to improve the symptoms?
- What, if anything, appears to worsen the symptoms?