Technically speaking, the answer to the question “can broken bones heal without a cast?” is yes. Assuming conditions are just right, a broken bone can heal without a cast. However, (and very importantly) it doesn’t work in all cases. Likewise, a broken bone left to heal without a cast may heal improperly. So perhaps instead of asking “can broken bones heal without a cast?”, the more useful question to answer is “do I need to get a cast?”
How to Heal a Broken Bone
Before answering the question, “do I need to get a cast?” It helps to consider how to heal a broken bone. Just as a cut on the skin will heal by itself, so too will a bone. If the cut is small, and the edges of the cut are close together, the skin will close itself up with time. The larger the cut, the longer the healing process will take, and the larger the scar will be. If there is considerable pressure placed on the skin, the cut will take even longer to heal, and the scar may be bigger afterwards.
The skin cut analogy can be used to help us understand how to heal a broken bone. If the break is small, and the edges are close together, it is more likely that the bone can knit itself together. On the other hand, if the sections of remaining bone are far apart and/or there is excessive pressure on the bone, the healing process of the broken bone will take longer. It is also more likely that the healed bone will be abnormal (like a large scar).
Thus, the best way to ensure a broken bone heals properly is to create the right conditions for the bone to heal. The bones should be immobilized, or not be able to move relative to one another. Since it takes weeks for bone to heal, the bone needs to be immobilized the entire time.
Lastly, the body needs to have optimal nutrients for the healing to occur. Bone healing requires calcium, natural hormones, vitamins, and adequate nutrition. Nutritional deficiencies, vitamin deficiencies, and certain chronic diseases can interfere with the natural process of bone healing.1 However, properly treating these problems can help restore natural bone healing.
Do I Need a Cast for a Broken Bone?
When you consider what a bone needs to properly heal itself after being broken, a cast makes good sense in many cases. A cast holds the broken bones in alignment and close to one another for several weeks, until the cast is removed. If the broken bone is in the leg, people usually are also given crutches or even a wheelchair to keep weight off of the healing bone.
A broken bone cast is required for longer bones such as the arms and legs. Some also may need to get a cast for certain broken bones in the torso, such as ribs, collarbones, and shoulders. On the other hand, people with finger fractures may not need to get a cast if the finger can be held in place with a splint or tape.
In essence, a broken bone cast is required if a rigid cast can create the right conditions for the broken bone to heal (see How to Heal a Broken Bone above).
Broken Bone Treatment Options
A cast is one option for treating a broken bone, but it is not the only treatment option. Other broken bone treatment options include splinting, taping, bracing, placing the affected bones in a sling, and surgery. As mentioned, finger fractures are often treated with taping. Typically, a process called “buddy taping” is used in which the broken finger is taped together with one or both surrounding fingers. The hand may be further immobilized with a brace.
An air splint is a temporary method of holding the bones together until a cast can be placed. An air splint is a long air-filled tube that provides some, but not full immobilization.
Some bones and some fractures are best treated with surgery. An orthopedic surgeon may use screws and plates to hold the broken bones in careful alignment with one another. The hardware can then be removed once the bone has healed.
Do You Have a Broken Bone?
Broken bones are treated by orthopedic surgeons. They are the experts in all broken bone treatment options, from taping to casting to surgery. Whether you need to get a cast or not, a broken bone should be evaluated and treated by an orthopedic surgeon. The orthopedic surgeons at iOrtho – The Orthopedic Institute are leading specialists in this regard — they know how to heal broken bone inside and out.
If you want to learn more about broken bone treatment options, contact iOrtho for a consultation.