A clavicle fracture, commonly known as the collarbone, is one of the more painful injuries of the arm and the shoulder. Since these injuries require lengthy periods of time for complete healing and disrupt the patient’s quality of life, it could be helpful to discuss the injury and how orthopaedic surgeons diagnose and treat it.
The clavicle, known by many people as the collarbone, is a long bone that runs across the top of the chest and shoulder. You can feel it running from where it meets the sternum at the chest to the shoulder. Many muscles of the shoulder, upper back, and chest attach to the clavicle.
Often younger patients, such as teenagers and young adults, suffer clavicle fractures through traumatic injuries such as falls off bicycles or getting tackled in football. Older adults can suffer clavicle fractures through falls, motor vehicle accidents and other high-energy trauma.
Mechanism of injury
A clavicle fracture almost always requires significant trauma. A direct blow to the clavicle or fall onto the shoulder can deliver enough force to break this bone. In high-energy trauma, like a motor vehicle accident, a clavicle fracture can be one of many long bone or internal injuries.
Diagnosis of clavicle fractures
Since the clavicle lies right under the skin, visible bony deformity caused by a broken clavicle is usually easy to see. The doctor can also feel the end of the bones at the fracture. X-rays usually show the fracture and how much displacement (separation between the bone fragments) exists. The amount of displacement can affect treatment decisions.
Non-surgical treatment of clavicle fractures
Many clavicle fractures line up well, so they can heal without surgery. The patient might need to wear a sling for several weeks. The sling can help to decrease pain due to motion of the bony fragments. As x-rays show more fracture healing, a patient can use his or her arm more. Complete healing of the fracture can take 3 to 4 months.
Surgery for clavicle fractures
Occasionally a patient will have a clavicle fracture that is significantly displaced. X-rays show that the ends of the bone are widely separated. Often if there is no contact between the ends of the bone, the orthopaedic surgeon can perform surgery to line up the bone appropriately and hold it with a plate and screws or pin inside the bone until it heals.
Recovery from a clavicle fracture
Full recovery from a clavicle fracture often takes 3 to 4 months, although it largely depends on the time it takes for the bone’s fracture healing to become solid. The patient can often start using the arm, especially at his side, fairly early after surgery if pain allows. As healing progresses, a physical therapist can help improve strength and range of motion of the shoulder.
Return to sports and work
Return to sports or work activities is largely dictated by the demands of the particular sport or duty. Return to sports largely depends on whether the athlete can perform his duties and how likely he could be to reinjure it. With jobs, people with a desk job can often return to work much sooner than a manual laborer can.
Some of these fractures are best treated surgically, so seeing an orthopedic surgeon for evaluation soon after you get hurt can be a good idea.
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