Skeletons are more than just decor for Halloween or a biology classroom. Our skeletal system is what makes our bodies durable. From the rib cage and skull protecting our critical organs, to our spine keeping us upright, our bones are a necessary part of our physiological structure. We would, quite literally, be oversized worms without our skeleton!
You might not think of bones as ever-changing in the same way you think of skin or muscles as being capable of change. You can watch a bruise form & fade right before your eyes, and have seen cuts bleed, clot, mend, and disappear all on their own. But we think of bones as rigid and structural, sturdy and unchanging. Really, bones are just as dynamic as all the other parts of our body, and they heal much the same!
So you’ve slipped on some ice, heard an unnerving “crack”, and now your wrist, or ankle, or leg is broken. While someone is driving you to Sideline Orthopedics’ walk-in hours, what’s happening inside your body?
First, your body bleeds, because there are blood vessels in your bones. No, we’re not kidding! Those hard-working bones aren’t as solid as you may think. They’re dotted with blood vessels, and just like your skin, if you break them, they will bleed.
So your bone starts bleeding, but this is a good thing, because the blood will form a blood clot. Just like blood clots on external injuries promote healing, this blot clot temporarily plugs the gap created by the break. This does not mean you can keep using the broken bone. Blood clots are like duct-taping a hole in the bottom of a ship: the duct tape will prevent the ship from sinking right away, but you shouldn’t keep rowing. Abandon ship and get help. Or, in this case, go to a doctor.
Next, your immune system triggers inflammation, or swelling. This acts as a distress signal to your body’s cells. Stem cells from the surrounding tissue, as well as your bone marrow and blood, respond to the call, and gather at the break point. These cells then begin the process of cartilage formation and bone repair.
Callus formation is slower than a blood clot, but creates a stronger fix for the break. A soft callus is formed first, from chondroblast cells, followed by a hard callus made of osteoblast cells. Hard calluses–made of collagen–serve as a substitute while your bone reshapes. When this hard callus is finished forming, that’s about when you’re able to remove the cast and start using the bone again. Eventually that hard callus is broken down until your bone is back to its original shape. This final stage can take years to complete.
The healing timeline for a broken bone depends on what bone is broken, the type of break, and your age, medical conditions, and nutrition. Children’s bones heal faster than adults’ bones, for example, and smaller bones have a shorter healing time than larger bones.
The key to fixing a bone is to keep it from moving to prevent further trauma, and to make sure the bone pieces are properly aligned when healing. Casts, splints, screws, and braces, all help hold the bone in place while it mends. The injury dictates what kind of device is needed.
Just like with any injury, if a broken bone isn’t seen and tended to by a professional, there’s a possibility it could heal improperly. Pain, inability to put weight on the bone, and swelling and bruising are all signs you should get to a doctor as soon as possible. This is why we offer walk-in hours: you can be seen the-day-of any breaks or fractures and get your body on the proper path of healing!