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Surgery for broken bones

Surgery for a broken arm or leg involves putting the broken parts of your bone back into place and fixing them together with metal plates, rods or pins so that they can heal.

You will meet the surgeon carrying out your procedure to discuss your care. It may differ from what is described here as it will be designed to meet your individual needs.

About surgery for broken bones

Bone is a living tissue, and when a bone breaks, it can heal itself. However, broken bones have to be held in place (immobilised) long enough to make sure they heal in the right position.

If you break (fracture) an arm or a leg bone it can sometimes be treated using a splint, a cast such as plaster of Paris or a brace. However, if the break is severe or your bone is broken in certain places these methods may not work, and you may be asked to have surgery.

Surgery for broken bones fixes the broken parts of your bone together with metal plates, rods, screws and pins. During the operation your bones are moved into the correct place and then fixed there.

Once the bones have been fixed in place, your body will produce new bone (callus) to join the broken parts together.

What are the alternatives?

If you have fractured a bone in your arm or leg there are a number of alternatives to surgery. These are listed below.

  • A splint can be used to keep broken bones immobilised, particularly just after an injury. A splint is a long, narrow piece of plaster, fibreglass or metal secured in place using tape, velcro or a bandage. The splint doesn’t go all the way around your limb, so it may be more comfortable than a cast if you have a lot of swelling.
  • A sling may be used to support your arm if you have broken your elbow or shoulder.
  • A cast is a hard and rigid protective covering which holds your bone in place and helps it to heal. Casts can be made of plaster of Paris or fibreglass.
  • A brace is similar to a cast but it allows you to move in a limited way.

Traction is a treatment sometimes used in hospital. It brings your bones into line with each other using a gentle but steady pulling action. Weights are used to pull the bones together and these are attached to your skin using tape, or to your bone using metal pins. Traction can be used as an initial treatment, for example, before surgery and is sometimes used for leg fractures.

Talk to your surgeon about the treatment options available to you.

Preparing for surgery for a broken bone

Surgery for broken bones is usually done using general anaesthesia. This means you will be asleep during the operation. You may be asked to follow fasting instructions before you have a general anaesthetic. This means not eating or drinking, typically for about six hours beforehand. However, it's important to follow your surgeon or anaesthetist's advice.

If you’re having surgery for a broken leg bone you may be asked to wear compression stockings and/or have an injection of an anticlotting medicine called heparin to help prevent deep vein thrombosis – blood clots forming in the veins in your legs.

You may be given antibiotics before your operation to help prevent an infection.

Your surgeon will discuss with you what will happen before, during and after your procedure, and any pain you might have. This is your opportunity to understand what will happen, and you can help yourself by preparing questions to ask about the risks, benefits and any alternatives to the procedure. This will help you to be informed, so you can give your consent for the procedure to go ahead, which you may be asked to do by signing a consent form.

What happens during surgery for broken bones?

Your surgeon will make a cut to open up the area where the fracture is. Before the bones can be fixed in place, he or she will need to move them back into their usual position. This is called reducing the fracture.

Once the bones are in the right place your surgeon will use a combination of metal wires, pins, screws, rods and plates to securely fix your bones in place. Metal rods or nails sit inside your bone while screws and metal plates attach onto the surface of your bone.

In most operations your surgeon will then close your skin using stitches or staples. You may have a cast or brace put on to protect your bones as they heal.

In other operations metal plates and screws are attached above and below your fracture. Your surgeon will then line the bone up in its normal place and attach screws to metal bars outside your skin. The metal bars are fixed together to form a frame and this holds the bones in the proper position so that they can heal.

What to expect afterwards

You may need to rest until the effects of the anaesthetic have passed. You may need pain relief to help with any discomfort as the anaesthetic wears off.

If you have had surgery for a broken arm, you may be given a sling or splint to keep it supported while it heals. If you have broken your leg, you will be given crutches or a walking frame to use to support you, so that you don't put any weight on your leg.

How long you will need to stay in hospital will depend on the type of fracture you have and whether you have other injuries. You will need to arrange for someone to drive you home.

Recovering from surgery for broken bones

If you need pain relief, you can take over-the-counter painkillers such as paracetamol or ibuprofen. Always read the patient information that comes with your medicine and if you have any questions, ask your pharmacist for advice.

It’s important to follow your surgeon’s advice about using your arm or putting weight on your leg after your operation. The pain from a broken bone usually goes before your bone has fully healed, so it’s important not to put too much stress on it too soon. Your surgeon will tell you when you can put weight on your leg or begin to use your arm.

Depending on the type of fracture you have and where it is, you may need to have some of the screws, pins and metal plates removed when your bones have healed. However, sometimes the metal parts remain in place for life. The operation to remove the screws, pins and metal plates is usually much quicker than when they are put in.

Your surgeon may arrange for you to see a physiotherapist, a health professional who specialises in maintaining and improving movement and mobility. He or she can help you to build up strength in your bones and muscles and to ease any stiffness. You may be given an exercise programme to follow, which will help to get back a full range of movement in the affected area.

How long it takes for a fracture to heal, and for you to get back to your usual activities, depends on the type of fracture and where it is. For example, a fracture of your thigh bone may take between four and six months to fully heal, whereas a fracture of your lower arm may take three to six months.

What are the risks?

As with every procedure, there are some risks associated with surgery for broken bones. We have not included the chance of these happening as they are specific to you and differ for every person. Ask your surgeon to explain how these risks apply to you.

Side effects

Side-effects are the unwanted but mostly temporary effects you may get after having the procedure.

You may have some pain after your operation. The affected area may also be swollen and bruised. This should get better after a few days. If your pain or swelling gets worse, tell your surgeon straight away.

Complications

Complications are when problems occur during or after the operation. The possible complications of any operation include an unexpected reaction to the anaesthetic, excessive bleeding or developing a blood clot, usually in a vein in your leg (deep vein thrombosis, or DVT).

The main complications of surgery for a broken bone are listed below.

  • The bone may not heal fully, or it may heal in the wrong position. This can happen if the bone becomes infected or if you use the affected arm or leg too much before it has healed properly. If your bone doesn’t heal properly you may need a further operation.
  • Your nerves or blood vessels may be damaged when the fracture happens or during your operation. Damaged nerves may cause some loss of movement or feeling in your arm or leg. Damage to your blood vessels may affect the blood supply to your arm or leg.
  • You may develop an infection in your wound or in the bone. This can be treated with antibiotics.
  • A fracture can lead to compartment syndrome. This happens when your muscles swell. Your muscles sit inside a capsule of tissue called fascia, so they don’t have much room to expand. When your muscles swell, the pressure increases and blood can’t flow into the muscle properly. This causes severe pain. An operation called a fasciotomy may be needed to release the pressure on the muscle.

 

Produced by Rebecca Canvin, Bupa Health Information Team, August 2012.

For answers to frequently asked questions on this topic, see FAQs.

For sources and links to further information, see Resources.

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  • This information was published by Bupa's Health Information Team and is based on reputable sources of medical evidence. It has been reviewed by appropriate medical or clinical professionals. Photos are only for illustrative purposes and do not reflect every presentation of a condition. The content is intended only for general information and does not replace the need for personal advice from a qualified health professional. For more details on how we produce our content and its sources, visit the about our health information page.

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