News | Published July 23, 2012 | Written by Craig Collison, MD, pediatrics, Mount Nittany Physician Group

How can parents tell if their child has a broken bone or just a sprain?

Unless you are blessed with the powers of Superman and his X-ray vision, you won't be able to determine whether an injury to your child involves a broken bone or if it is just a sprain. That being said, there are many clues that can help steer you toward a probable diagnosis.

  1. Location: Pain and swelling that occur in the middle region of a bone (away from either joint) are more likely to indicate some type of fracture. Pain and swelling at a joint can be either a fracture or a soft-tissue sprain.
  2. Deformity: Any sign of deviation from the normal anatomic structure of a body part is a clear sign of fracture or dislocation. Swelling at a joint that doesn't alter the normal direction of a body part can be a fracture/dislocation or a soft-tissue sprain.
  3. Mechanism of injury: Injuries occur from several different mechanisms, most commonly a direct impact or a twisting injury. Fractures are more likely to result from a direct impact, and twisting injuries more often produce soft-tissue sprains or tears; however, it's important to note that fractures can sometimes occur from twisting action.
  4. Weight bearing and use of injured body part: If the child is unable to bear weight on the injured leg or unable to have any use of an upper body part, that increases the likelihood of a fracture. The ability to bear weight or use a body part with pain lowers the chance of a fracture.

The one characteristic that makes children different from adults - and even more challenging to diagnose in terms of injury - is that they have growth plates at the end of all the long bones. These growth plates are formed of cartilage and are very prone to injury, as they are weaker than all the other structures that support the skeleton (bone, ligaments and tendons). Because of this weakness, growth plate fractures are common in children and can occur even with typical sprains and strains.

Bruising is one sign that does little to help differentiate between fractures and sprains, that's because bruising can be caused by either injury.

In terms of getting injuries evaluated by your pediatrician, all injuries that involve deformity, an inability to bear weight or use an upper appendage, or significant swelling should be checked. This is especially true for children with open growth plates - namely every child who hasn't finished growing. An X-ray remains the best way to check for fractures and assess the growth plates in the area of injury.

For more information on broken bones, sprains and fractures (or about Mount Nittany Health's pediatrics team or family physicians), visit mountnittany.org.

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