Please note: This information does not qualify you as an official first aider, and Virtual College advises calling 999 in the first instance at the scene of an emergency.
This material and any associated assessments do not constitute a qualification or accreditation as an official first aider. All content provided is for general information only.
Broken bones are generally not as common as some might expect, and indeed, they are often misdiagnosed. However, they do still happen, and it’s very important to understand how they can be treated as part of first aid.
In most cases, broken bones are not particularly serious or life-threatening injuries. But this is not always the case, which makes proper medical attention very important.
Correct first aid for broken bones can be the first step in ensuring that broken bones heal properly and go back to normal following the accident, so knowing how to deal with a broken bone before visiting a hospital is an important part of the treatment process.
In this article, we’re going to explain how you can determine if someone has broken a bone, and what you need to do to treat them.
It’s not always easy to tell if someone has broken a bone or not, particularly when the injury is only fairly minor. Some general signs can help you decide whether the injury you’re dealing with might be a broken bone.
It is also worth noting that broken bones are categorised as closed and open fractures. Closed fractures remain under the skin, whereas open fractures pierce the skin and protrude outwards. The latter is naturally easier to identify.
Some of the symptoms you can look for include the following:
NHS guidance for broken bones is that you should visit your nearest minor injury unit or urgent care centre if you think you or someone else has broken a small bone in your body. These injuries need professional medical attention but aren’t as urgent as larger breaks.
In the event of a more serious break, such as an arm or leg bone, NHS advice is to go to your nearest Accident and Emergency department. These breaks present more of a health risk and need to be seen more quickly, so you or the person with the broken bone should travel to A&E as soon as you can. Closed fractures can only be identified with certainty by using an x-ray machine and they are sometimes hard to detect.
If you suspect a severe break, or the damage is so bad that the injured person cannot move, you are advised to call 999 and ask for an ambulance. This is particularly important if you think the person might have broken their neck or their back.
The first thing to note is that broken bones can cause bleeding, which in turn may cause the body to suffer shock. This is a defined medical condition, not an emotional response and it can be life-threatening, so a key part of broken bone treatment is preventing shock.
For more information on shock and what you need to do, please read our article on how to treat someone who has gone into shock.
If the fracture is open and the bone has pierced through the skin, then your goal will initially be to cover the wound with some form of dressing to help guard against infection. You should also apply some careful pressure to it to control any bleeding that occurs. This will help prevent shock from arising as a result of blood loss.
Next, or if the fracture is closed, you must ensure that the injury is kept as still as possible to avoid further injury. It also needs to be supported, which may mean holding it in place until medical help can be sought.
It’s often useful to use another part of the body to support the broken bone; for example, arms can be put in slings, and broken fingers can be strapped together. Broken leg first aid for fractures often involves strapping one leg to the other.
If you suspect that a bone has become dislocated in any way, you should under no circumstances attempt to put it back into place, as this could cause further injury and pain. Medical professionals will be able to make the call. First aid for broken bones must always be about support, not fixing the injury.
Once you have given first aid to the injured person, you should continue to monitor them to ensure that they do not go into shock. Depending on the nature of their broken bone, you should take them to the appropriate place for further medical attention.
It’s important not to let the injured person eat or drink anything before you take them to have their broken bone looked at by a medical professional. This is because the fracture may require surgery, and general anaesthetics can be affected by a full stomach which may end up delaying the process of setting the bone.
As a first aider, it can be really useful to understand how a broken bone will be repaired over time, as this better informs the initial steps you take to protect the injury site and can provide the injured person with some clarity and reassurance. There are three main stages of the broken bone healing process.
When a bone initially breaks, it goes through the inflammatory stage of repair where the site of the injury will become swollen and painful. This is because the cells in this area are trying to keep the injury from worsening by preventing movement and keeping the affected area still so that it can heal.
At this stage of repair, blood clots form around the broken bone which is the first step in fusing it back together.
During the reparative stage, the blood clots are replaced by a soft type of bone known as a soft callus, which holds the broken sections of the bone together. This usually happens around a week after the initial injury and means that the bone is provisionally joined back together but isn’t strong enough to be used or moved.
The final stage of healing a broken bone is the remodelling stage which takes place around six weeks after the original break. At this point, the soft callus is replaced by regular bone. This initially forms in quite an uneven shape, but in the months that follow the bone is ‘remodelled’ so that it looks like and functions as it did before.
Broken bones need to be treated as quickly as possible because there are potential complications if they are left to heal without proper medical intervention. An untreated broken bone can either stay broken and not heal back together, causing a lot of pain, or take longer than usual to heal which can lead to infection, misalignment or incorrect healing.
If a broken bone isn’t set properly then it might fuse back together incorrectly, which can make it weaker, limit mobility and cause joint pain later in life. The sooner that a broken bone is treated the better the chances of a full recovery, which is why first aid for broken bones is so important.
According to data from Go Health, the clavicle, or collarbone, is the most commonly broken bone in the body. This is because it is particularly common in children and infants, with many clavicle fractures happening when a baby is pushed through the birth canal.
The amount of time it takes for a broken bone to heal depends on the severity of the break and the location of the broken bone in the body. The majority of fractures take between six and eight weeks to heal, with smaller bones in places like fingers and toes usually taking less time, whilst major fractures in the leg or multiple types of broken bones in one area take several months to properly heal.
Stainless steel and titanium implants are used for broken bones when a break has been particularly bad and needs additional support to heal. These implants might be screws, wires or metal plates that help to keep a bone in place and are made of metals that the body is unlikely to react to.
Broken bones are a relatively common injury, so this is a scenario that it is good to be aware of and prepared for as a first aider. Knowing how to care for broken bones and also understanding what happens if you leave a broken bone untreated will ensure that you act quickly, deliver the right first aid and help the injured person get the right medical attention for their situation, leading to an efficient and successful healing process.
If you’d like to find out more about how to give first aid in situations like this one, our online training course on the ‘Primary Survey’ is a very useful starting point for first aiders that want to know how to deal with injuries like broken bones.