Would you know how to help if your friend or family member broke an arm?
In the British Red Cross video, “Broken Bone First Aid Tips,” a postman helps an elderly woman support her broken arm after she slips on the stairs. Check out this postman’s quick thinking.
As the video shows, the treatment you use on a break or sprain before you see a doctor could determine if the injury will heal properly or if permanent damage will be done to the area. (And, of course, U.S. residents would call 9-1-1 as needed, not the number provided in the video.)
Since it’s hard to tell the difference between breaks and sprains, treat the injury like a break until you can get an x-ray. You should splint and support it so it doesn’t move.
What’s the difference between a sprain and a break?
According to the book, Wilderness and Travel Medicine, a Sprain happens “when a ligament is stretched or twisted until the [joint] can no longer move comfortably in its normal range of motion.” Most sprains happen at the ankle or knee, though they can happen in other joints as well, such as the feet, toes, wrist, or fingers.
A Break (or fracture) is when the bone itself actually breaks. A break can happen to any bone in your body, and not just at the joints or ligaments like a sprain. Either a whole bone or part of a bone can break. There are two main types of fractures:
- Open fracture (aka the “compound fracture”): the broken bone breaks through the skin
- Closed fracture (aka the “simple fracture”): the bone is broken, but does not break through the skin
Which Takes Longer to Heal—a Break or a Sprain?
A sprain takes longer to heal. According to Dr. Daryl Rosenbaum of Wake Forest University Medical Center, a serious sprain (when the ligament tears completely) can take 4 to 6 weeks to heal or sometimes longer.
Sprains can take longer to heal because the ligaments that are stretched need to time to get back into place. Also, muscles around the sprained joint need to be strengthened as well before they are fully functioning again.
A break only takes 4 weeks to heal, depending on what bone in the body you break. If you break a weight bearing bone, like one of the bones in your leg, it can take longer.
This Inova Health Systems “Fit for Fifty” video cracks an age-old myth: Is it “better” to break a bone or sprain your ankle?
If healing is rushed for either injury, serious complications could arise later. So be patient! If you just can’t stand the itchy cast, DON’T stick a pencil down there! It will delay the healing process because it can cause skin infections and blood conditions. Instead, try using a hair dryer on a low setting to blow air between the cast and your skin. For more tips on how to relieve that itch safely, read “Wearing a Cast? Be Careful How You Scratch that Itch.”
What are the signs/symptoms of a break or sprain?
The symptoms of breaks and sprains are so similar that it is hard to tell the difference between the two injuries (unless the victim has an open fracture). According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, some common signs of breaks and sprains include:
- Pain with movement
- Deformity—the limb is in an unnatural position (applies to a break)
- Unable to use the limb (applies to a break)
- Grinding, cracking, or snapping noises (applies to a break)
- Movement in limb where there is no joint (applies to a break)
How do you treat a Sprain?
Wilderness and Travel Medicine author, Dr. Eric A. Weiss, suggests that you should begin treatment by following the acronym, RICES
- R- Rest the limb.
- I-Ice the limb to reduce swelling and pain. Ice immediately after the injury occurs. Ice for 20 minutes 3-4 times a day.
- C- Compress the limb. Immediately after icing, wrap the limb in a compression bandage. Failure to compression wrap the limb after icing will cause the joint to swell shortly after the ice is removed.
- E- Elevate the limb above the level of the heart to decrease swelling.
- S-Stabilize the limb. Use a splint or tape to prevent further injury.
How do you treat a break?
Since a lot of breaks happen in the back country, Dr. Weiss gives some tips for how to safely treat a break before you can get to a doctor.
- Check for deformity, angulation or damage to the skin. Cut away clothes with a cutting tool or sharp object instead of trying to remove them normally so you can treat it.
- If the wound is bleeding, apply direct pressure to the wound.
- Check for circulation below the injury by checking the pulse. If circulation is lost to the area, the limb may only have 6-8 hours before it begins to decay.
- Look for other injuries to the person’s body.
- Splint the injury.
For an open fracture, disinfect and clean the bone and broken skin. Then try to realign the limb, so that you can splint it. For tips on how to properly realign the limb, pick up a copy of Wilderness Travel and Medicine.
When is it ok to move someone with a broken bone?
Unless the victim’s life is in immediate danger, always splint the broken limb before moving them. Splinting the leg will not only ensure that no more damage will be done to the area, but it will also help to reduce pain.
According to Medline Plus, NEVER move a person in the following circumstances:
- They have a spine injury
- Have an injured hip, pelvis, or upper leg. If you absolutely must move a person with these injuries, pull them to safety by their clothes (by the shoulders of a shirt, a belt, or their pant leg[s]).
Have you experienced a broken bone or a sprain or helped someone who has? Share your stories in the comments.