X-ray of a hairline fracture in a person's hand

Broken bone lingo explained

Most of us will end up breaking two bones in our lifetime. If you have ever had an X-ray at your local urgent care or orthopedists’ office, you may have heard the medical terms: hairline or stress fracture. These are words your doctor may use to describe a bone injury.

“The words broken and fractured basically mean the same thing. Fracture is simply a more scientific term,” says Ronald Snyder, MD, pediatric orthopedist and sports medicine specialist at Summit Health. “A patient may feel alarmed when they hear the word broken and are not given more information, but there is much more that they should understand about their bone injury.”


What is a fracture?

A fracture means there has been change to the configuration of the bone that can be seen on an X-ray. If your doctor does not see any cracks, splits, or fine lines in your bone then they will conclude that there is not a break. Fractures are further categorized. First, they can be either displaced or non-displaced. A displaced fracture means that the bones have moved out of place. Displaced fractures may need to be set or surgically corrected.


What is a hairline fracture?

The term hairline fracture is a way to describe a non-displaced bone fracture that is barely visible on an X-ray. “I use the term hairline fracture if I can see an actual fracture line on X-ray, but it is very faint or mild,” explains Dr. Snyder. “This is an important distinction from a microfracture or bone bruise where only the inside, spongy portion of the bone has been injured.”


Who can get a hairline fracture?

Anyone is susceptible to a bone injury including children, adults, and the elderly. People who have conditions like osteoporosis that cause low bone density are at a greater risk of developing a fracture.


Symptoms of hairline fracture

The typical symptoms a patient may experience directly after an injury include:

  • Pain
  • Swelling
  • Bruising
  • May have difficulty moving the body part

“These symptoms may be less severe when the fracture is non-displaced. This is both surprising for patients and problematic because it can cause someone to delay treatment for a few days,” explains Dr. Snyder. “This situation occurs more frequently for non-weight-bearing bones such as the finger or wrist.”


What is a stress fracture?

The term stress fracture is used to describe how an injury occurred. It is not a specific type of fracture that is seen on an X-ray.

A stress fracture occurs when there is repetitive use of a bone. The overuse causes the bone to break down over time, rather than all at once. The severity of stress fractures varies greatly. You can have stress fractures that are not visible, barely visible like a hairline fracture pattern, or a displaced fracture where the bones have separated.


Treatment for a hairline fracture

Many patients assume that a hairline fracture will heal faster, but this is not always the case. It really depends on several factors, including:

  • Severity of the patient’s symptoms.
  • Size of the bone. Smaller bones such as fingers and toes will heal faster than larger ones.
  • The location of the hairline fracture. If the fracture was in a weight-bearing location of the body, such as the leg or ankle, the healing process will be slower.

Typically, hairline fractures of the wrist, elbow, or shoulder can be supported with a brace or sling. However, lower limb fractures may require additional support such as using a walker or wearing a cast because they are weight-bearing bones. Surgery may also be needed to stabilize the fracture and prevent displacement in bones like the hip joint.

If you are concerned you may have a fracture after an injury, fall, or overuse, visit the closest CityMD. You can also make an appointment with your primary care physician or orthopedic specialist for an evaluation.

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