This is What Would Happen If, a close examination of mundane hypothetical situations. Each week, we look at something that you could do but probably never would, and take it to its logical endpoint. This week: What would happen if you broke a bone and didn’t see a doctor?
When you’re young, breaking a bone is a life-altering event. You’ve never broken a bone before. Now you have. People sign your cast. Eventually it heals and now you have a cool story about that one time you broke your such-and-such when you were doing this-and-that with so-and-so.
When you’re older, fracturing something just becomes yet another thing to deal with. Maybe you twist your ankle, or stub your toe or fall a little too hard on your wrist. It hurts, sure, but you’re definitely not going to die. Why bother spending your hard-earned money and wasting a precious afternoon sitting in the ER? Why not just let your body handle it?
To find out if letting nature run its course is a wise decision, we spoke with Dr. Wayne Johnson, an orthopedic surgeon. The short answer? You could, but it wouldn’t be ideal.
It all depends on where the fracture occurs and how bad it is. There are two main types of fractures — displaced and non-displaced. To demonstrate the difference, let’s pretend you’re munching on a chicken drumstick.
In once instance you bend the drumstick until you hear a faint crack. From the outside the drumstick looks fine, and still feels relatively solid. This is known as a non-displaced fracture. “Many times a fracture can be non-displaced, meaning it’s lined up very well,” says Johnson.
In another instance, you really wrench the heck out of that drumstick, and now one end is flapping around. This is known as a displaced fracture, where the two broken ends of the bone aren’t lined up and even might be overlapping.
If your fracture is non-displaced, then you’re in luck. “Those fractures will go on to heal and really not give the patient much in the way of disability,” says Johnson. The trick, however, is keeping a non-displaced fracture non-displaced.
If it’s a hand or an arm, then by the sheer pain alone it should be relatively easy to keep whatever’s broken immobile. The pain is your body’s way of telling you to keep it still, and more often than not it’s pretty simple to oblige your body.
If the fracture is in a leg, ankle or foot, however, then it gets significantly harder to stop yourself from displacing your broken bone. “I’ve seen occasions where a person had a fracture, and they continued to walk on it,” says Johnson. “By the time they came into the doctor, you could see that it’s significantly displaced and now they require surgery.”
So what happens if you don’t get a displaced fracture treated? Well, the good news is that your body will heal, eventually, it just won’t heal properly. For example, yours truly broke his collarbone into three pieces, and was told by the doctor that the collarbone would heal, just in a Z-shape rather than a straight line.
“Ah jeez, well that can’t be good,” you might be saying to yourself. And yes, you are absolutely correct, it would not be good. “If the displacement is over a centimeter, most of the time the fracture will still heal,” says Johnson. “The risk is you have disability or discomfort later on.”
It might sound obvious, but our bodies are bags of muscle and membrane and tissues strapped to a skeleton. If you break a bone and it heals funny, the body will accommodate the weird bone shape, but eventually muscles will get sore, tendons and ligaments will get inflamed and you’ll feel the pain.