How to know if a child’s bone is broken and what to do

Your child comes home and complains that an arm or a leg hurts. What do you do? Only a doctor can diagnose a broken arm or a broken leg, but you can look for signs that could indicate your child has a fracture, or broken bone.

What are the types of broken bones?

If your child complains of pain in an arm or leg, he or she may have experienced a broken bone or fracture.

What is a fracture? It’s not correct to say a “fracture” is a milder form of a “break.” The word “fracture” simply means “broken.” A fractured bone is broken. A broken bone is fractured. A fracture can be tiny and hard to see or deformed and poking through the skin. Like a sweet potato is a yam, a broken bone is fractured.

There are several types that can be diagnosed by a pediatric orthopedist, including:

  • Open fracture: The broken bone has come through the skin.
  • Displaced: The broken bone doesn’t line up as it should; it can also be an open fracture.
  • Non-displaced: The bones line up as they should; this makes it harder to see that there is a break.

Signs of a broken arm or broken leg

As a parent, you can look for several signs your child may have a broken arm or broken leg. The different types of fractures can have many of the same signs or symptoms, including:

  • Bruising: Your child may have a bruise or bruises near the break. Your child may say that it feels tender, or that it hurts when he or she touches it.
  • Can’t hold the limb straight: Your child may say that he or she can’t hold the limb straight at the site of the injury.
  • Can’t move the limb as normal: Your child may complain that he or she can’t move the injured arm or leg normally. This is not always a sign of a broken bone, as some kids may still be able to move the limb even if it’s broken.
  • Numbness: Your child may say the injury site is numb. This could mean there is nerve damage near the injury site. A change in the color of the skin may be a sign of this as well.
  • Pain: Your child may say it hurts when he or she tries to move the injured arm or leg. He or she may find walking, holding or lifting objects or any pressure on the limb painful.
  • Snapping sound at the time of injury: Your child may recall hearing a “snap” when he or she got hurt.
  • Swelling: You or your child may see the area around the break begin to swell. Bumps or other changes to the skin may appear near the injury.

You may see all or just some of these symptoms.

What to do if you suspect your child has a broken arm or broken leg

Call 911 if the bone has gone through the skin or you think your child’s head, neck or back was hurt. If not, your child still will need to see a doctor as soon as possible. If it’s during the day, call your pediatrician to ask where he or she thinks you should go for care. There are things you can do before your child gets help.

Norton Children’s Orthopedics of Louisville

Call (502) 394-5678 to make an appointment.

If you can see the bone through the skin, you can:

  • Have your child lie down.
  • Do not try to push the bone back into place, no matter how bad it looks.
  • Put pressure on the area with gauze from a first-aid kit or a clean cloth.
  • Do not wash the injury site.

If you can’t see the bone, you can:

  • Cut off or gently remove any clothing around the injury; take care to not cause any extra pain.
  • Wrap ice or use a cold compress covered in cloth and place on the skin near the injury (do not do this step for babies or toddlers, as the cold temperature may hurt their skin).
  • Make a splint or sling: you can make a splint by covering the area around the break with a soft, loose cloth, then add a board or a rolled-up magazine or newspaper to the limb. This board should cover more than the entire length of the injury. Wrap tape or gauze bandage around it to keep the homemade splint in place. Make sure not to wrap it too tightly. You can make an arm sling out of a piece of fabric, including clothing or towels, to help keep the limb in place.
  • Do not give any food, drink or medicine to your child, in case he or she needs surgery.


Norton Women's and Children's Hospital

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