With 206 bones in the human body and a world full of collisions, falls, slips, trips and mishaps, it's no wonder some of them get broken. And some bones -- by virtue of their locations in our bodies -- break more often than others.
When we're not busy finding new ways to fracture our bones, we should have a mix of awe and respect for our internal skeletal framework that prevents us from pooling up on the floor like jellyfish. Bones produce blood cells, protect our organs, shield our brain, help maintain calcium in our bodies, and form a complicated system of supports and levers that enable our muscles to move our bodies. Best yet, when they get fractured, bones immediately begin to heal themselves.
When bones break, they instantly begin depositing calcium at the site of the fracture. When healing is complete, bones end up just as strong as they were before the break. Additionally, when completely healed, the site of the previous fracture is no more or less likely to break than any other place on the bone.
Of course, some fractures are more conducive to self-healing than others. Such is the case with non-displaced fractures, in which the fractured parts of the bone remain in alignment. If you suffer a displaced fracture, both sides of the bone will need to be placed back into alignment before being set.
Here's to hoping your next fracture is a closed fracture. You'll know it's a closed fracture if you can't see a fractured bone sticking out of your skin (the dreaded open fracture). Upon fracturing, bones may fragment into several pieces -- known as a comminuted fracture -- or the bone may not break at all, but merely bend, as is the case with greenstick fractures (which are more common in kids).
With so many ways to break a bone, it's no wonder that some bones break more often than others. In this article, we'll learn about the five most commonly broken bones, some of which may have starring roles in your own personal medical history.
The clavicle -- or collarbone -- rests between the upper ribcage and the scapula (shoulder blade) and is an important bone, as it attaches the arm to the body. It's prominent position -- coupled with its long, slender shape -- means it is one of the most common bones to break, especially when it comes to the active, rock-'em-sock-'em lives of kids.
Babies can even suffer clavicle fractures during passage through the birth canal, but fortunately the bones of children and infants heal extremely quickly.
Fractured clavicles also commonly occur in sports, especially if it's a backyard pick-up game where players aren't wearing any type of body-protection or padding. Car accidents also frequently lead to clavicle fractures, as a result of impact with either the seatbelt, steering wheel or from bracing against the dashboard with extended arms.
When the clavicle fractures, it usually does so right in its middle. You'll know you broke yours if your arm is suddenly rendered useless, while a bump develops on the clavicle. No surgery is needed if it's a non-displaced fracture and both sides of the clavicle are still lined up properly; an arm sling usually suffices. For displaced fractures, however, surgical plates or screws may be required for the bones to heal correctly.
Next: a bone we all-too-often place in harm's way, as a means of keeping us out of it.
To loosely reference the lyrics of a Dean Martin tune, you're nobody 'til somebody, um, signs your arm cast. And many of us will either have one signed or sign the cast of another at some point in life, as the arm is one of the most commonly broken bones in the human body.
How common are fractured arms? Half of all adult bone breaks consist of fractured arms, and kids bust their wings pretty often as well -- it's the second most common bone-break among children, after the collarbone [source: Baniukiewicz]. Children are more likely to break their lower arms than their upper arms [source: AAOS].
You may break your upper arm (humerus) or either of the two bones in your lower arm (radius and ulna). An arm fracture can result from a fall, impact or other forms of sudden misfortune. The arm can be fractured in any number of terrible ways, meaning compound fractures (multiple breaks in the same bone) and spiral fractures (fractures caused by force of twisting) are distinct -- and distinctly painful -- possibilities.
If you fracture your arm, don't try to move it. Stabilize it using a sling or makeshift brace and seek medical attention. Depending on the severity of the break, it may take weeks or months for it to completely heal.
If you attempt to stop a fall with outstretched arms and it doesn't lead to an arm fracture, there's a chance another commonly broken bone won't fare as well, as we'll next learn.
Many of the millions of bones that are broken in the U.S. each year have a name you may not be familiar with, like a Colles' fracture for example. Unfortunately, there's a decent chance you or someone you know has experienced one.
The radius bone is the lower-arm bone that's closest to your thumb. The distal end of this bone is the one closest to your hand (as opposed to your elbow). When this end of the distal bone is broken, it's called a distal radius fracture or a Colles' fracture -- named for 19th-century Irish surgeon Abraham Colles, who first described it. You probably know it as a broken wrist.
Broken wrists are most common before the age of 75 because this fracture is often caused during physical activity, such as skiing, biking or skateboarding. It's the most common fracture of any bone in the arm [source: AAOS]. The majority of these fractures occur approximately 1 inch away from the end of the distal bone, most commonly as a result of trying to stop a fall, or any other action that forces the hand backward.
One major problem that accompanies a fractured wrist is a tendency to self-diagnose the injury as something other than a fracture. If medical attention isn't sought, the bone may grow back improperly resulting in a change in the joint's functioning that wears down cartilage and leads to chronic arthritis or carpal tunnel syndrome.
Older people are the most likely to experience the type of broken bone we'll learn about in the next section.
There are few injuries that inhibit mobility and quality of life more than a fractured hip. In fact, all too often -- nearly a quarter of the time for people over age 50 -- a fractured hip leads to death due to complications in the year following the fracture [source: AAOS].
Hip fractures actually occur in the femur, near the "ball" at its end that fits into the hip socket. While the femur is one of our strongest bones, age-related calcium loss in the femur (as well as every other bone of the body) makes it increasingly vulnerable to fracture.
Hips are one of the most common bones to break, and the most frequently broken bone for people over the age of 65, who account for around 90 percent of hip fractures [source: Mayo Clinic]. Around 80 percent of those fractures occur in post-menopausal women, who are at higher risk due to osteoporosis [source: Mayo Clinic]. Women over 65 have a 20 percent chance of eventually breaking a hip [source: Civista Health].
Since the majority of fractured hips result from falls, conditions such as Alzheimer's disease, arthritis and vision impairment increase a person's risk of hip fracture.
Following a fall, immobility and severe pain are primary symptoms of a fractured hip. Treatment often involves surgery, which requires the use of metal screws, or partial or full hip replacement, and a lengthy period of rehabilitation. Some who fracture hips will need to use a cane or walker for the rest of their lives.
Keep reading to learn about another commonly broken bone that leads to the temporary estrangement of the foot and the leg.
We're probably all familiar with the sudden, sharp and somewhat-gross sensation that accompanies rolling or spraining our ankles. It can happen practically anywhere: on the field of play, on a hiking trail or while navigating the toy-covered floor of a child's bedroom.
As active baby boomers continue to age (and push themselves and their bodies), there has been an increase in the numbers of broken ankles being treated, and this trend is expected to continue.
While sprained ankles are quite common, so too are broken ankles, and it's easy to confuse one for the other. Ankle fractures and sprains are both often accompanied by tendon damage. They cause swelling and bruising, and can force the injured person off his or her feet for long periods of time, followed by time on crutches or a significant limp. Because the injury may be more severe than it initially seems, it's a good idea to get all ankle injuries examined by a health care professional.
There are three bones that form the ankle joint: the tibia and fibula of the lower leg, and the talus in the foot. Any of these three bones can be broken by extreme pressure from overextension or impact.
Treatment of a fractured ankle depends on the severity and complexity of the break. Some ankles can be treated with a cast or even just the stability provided by high-top-style basketball shoes, while others will require surgery and the use of screws or pins.
While broken bones are common -- and some clearly more frequent than others -- you can decrease your risk by strengthening your bones through calcium supplements, regular exercise and precaution. You can also find lots more information on broken bones on the next page.
HowStuffWorks looks at items that adults often swallow that they shouldn't.
- American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS). "Ankle Fractures." Sept. 2007. (July 10, 2011) http://orthoinfo.aaos.org/topic.cfm?topic=a00391
- American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS). "Broken Arm." July 2007. (July 10, 2011) http://orthoinfo.aaos.org/topic.cfm?topic=a00078
- American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS). "Clavicle Fracture (Broken Collarbone)." Jan. 2011. (July 10, 2011) http://orthoinfo.aaos.org/topic.cfm?topic=a00072
- American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS). "Distal Radius Fracture." Aug. 2007. (July 10, 2011) http://orthoinfo.aaos.org/topic.cfm?topic=a00412
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- MedlinePlus. "Colles' Wrist Fracture." July 28, 2010. (July 10, 2011) http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/000002.htm
- O'Connor, Anahad. "The Claim: After Being Broken, Bones Can Become Even Stronger." The New York Times. Oct. 18, 2010. (July 10, 2011) http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/19/health/19really.html
- University of Wisconsin Hospitals and Clinics Authority. "Clavicle (collarbone) fracture." Feb. 8, 2010. (July 10, 2011) http://www.uwhealth.org/healthfacts/B_EXTRANET_HEALTH_INFORMATION-FlexMember-Show_Public_HFFY_1126665400680.html
- Wolf, Stephan J., M.D. "Ankle Fracture." Aug. 10, 2005. (July 10, 2011) http://www.emedicinehealth.com/ankle_fracture/article_em.htm