Updated Oct. 19, 2020
While breaking a bone sounds straightforward, there are actually many different ways a bone can break. An open fracture, also called a compound fracture, can occur through a simple fall, playing a sport, being in a car accident, or any other high-impact event.
“When an adult patient comes in with a fracture, our goal is to get that patient back to their life, their job, their recreation,” says Ivan Tarkin, MD, chief, UPMC Division of Orthopaedic Traumatology.
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What Is an Open Leg Fracture?
An open or compound bone fracture is a break in which the bone pierces the skin. Because this type of fracture opens the skin, exposing the wound to dirt and bacteria, it can be more complicated to treat.
An open leg fracture can occur in any of the leg bones, but most commonly in the femur, tibia, or fibula. The fracture can vary in severity depending on the amount of force that causes the injury. More intense fractures may affect nearby nerves, arteries, or muscles and cause the bone to fragment.
You have a greater risk of sustaining an open leg fracture if you have weaker bones or a condition like osteoporosis, if you play high-risk sports, or if you are involved in high–energy trauma.
Open Leg Fracture Treatment
Your doctor will use an X-ray and/or CT scan to help determine the severity of the fracture and the necessary treatment. Since this type of fracture has a high risk of infection, immediate treatment is key. In most cases, an open fracture requires surgical cleaning of the injury no more than 24 hours after it occurs. Your doctor will typically prescribe you antibiotics. You may need to stay in the hospital for several days or more.
In most cases, the doctor will need to use rods, pins, screws, or metal plates to help hold the bone in place to heal. Since a fracture can also damage the surrounding skin, muscles, nerves, and arteries, the doctor will work to repair other tissue damage as well. Sometimes this requires multiple surgical procedures. In severe cases, this will require consultation with a plastic surgeon and/or vascular surgeon.
Following surgery, open leg fracture treatment may include stabilizing the fracture with a brace, splint, or cast. Resting and elevating the fractured leg is important, especially in the early days following the injury.
“For any given patient, we certainly give the patient options, including operation or conservative care,” Dr. Tarkin says. “In a majority of cases, to increase the chances of that patient healing uneventfully with a straight functional limb, surgery is typically the gold standard.”
Open Leg Fracture Recovery
Open leg fractures can take several months to heal, depending on their severity. It may take longer to heal if multiple bones are affected, nerves are damaged, or if you develop an infection. Fractures of the lower leg can take longer to heal because they don’t have as much surrounding soft tissue or blood supply to help speed the healing process.
Doctors generally suggest using a wheelchair, walker, or crutches to keep weight off the leg while the bone heals.
Your doctor will often prescribe physical therapy, an important part of the recovery process. Specific movements and exercises can help strengthen muscles and maintain flexibility in the leg.
To learn more about open leg fractures, visit UPMC Orthopaedic Care or make an appointment by calling 1-866-987-6784.
“At UPMC, we have a comprehensive fracture unit,” Dr. Tarkin says. “We take care of not only simple breaks, but also very complex musculoskeletal injury.”
About UPMC Orthopaedic Care
When you are dealing with bone, muscle, or joint pain, it can affect your daily life. UPMC Orthopaedic Care can help. As a national leader in advanced orthopaedic care, we diagnose and treat a full range of musculoskeletal disorders, from the acute and chronic to the common and complex. We provide access to UPMC’s vast network of support services for both surgical and nonsurgical treatments and a full continuum of care. Our multidisciplinary team of experts will work with you to develop the treatment plan that works best for you. Our care team uses the most innovative tools and techniques to provide better outcomes. We also are leaders in research and clinical trials, striving to find better ways to provide our patients care. With locations throughout our communities, you can find a provider near you.