What is a Compound Fracture?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

In a compound fracture, which may also be called an open fracture, the broken bone pierces through the skin. It may be completely visible or the piercing bone may have withdrawn, leaving a wound that is open to the bone. These fractures tend to pose great risk for several reasons and they usually need fairly immediate surgical treatment for best healing.

A compound fracture often requires surgery, after which the bone is set in a cast.
A compound fracture often requires surgery, after which the bone is set in a cast.

The most compelling reason to get medical help for a person with a compound fracture is to avoid infection. Any cut in the skin leaves the wounded area vulnerable and it’s possible for bacteria to enter the wound. Depending on the type of fracture, it may even be possible for bacterial infection to affect the bone, which may create significant challenge to healing. To avoid this, doctors typically want to repair the bone and close the wound as quickly as possible, while perhaps giving antibiotics to make certain no infection develops. Delaying this increases infection risk and may turn repair from a simple to a complex process.

Gauze can be used to cover any wounds while waiting for emergency care.
Gauze can be used to cover any wounds while waiting for emergency care.

The one thing to do while getting a person to a doctor or waiting for emergency assistance is to cover any wound with sterile gauze. If it’s possible to work around a protruding bone and bleeding is profuse, light pressure could be applied to sterile dressings. This isn’t always possible because significant bone protrusion would mean applying pressure on the area of fracture, which might injure it even more. Mostly, people should keep the injured person as still as possible. Applying a tourniquet to stop bleeding is not advised if emergency help is nearby.

Athletes competing in full-contact sports are at risk for compound fractures.
Athletes competing in full-contact sports are at risk for compound fractures.

The repair for the compound fracture usually involves surgery. Type of surgery and extent of repair depends on total degree of injury. The length of healing depends on the severity of the injury, but it is typically at least two months or more. Surgeons may need to place screws or plates to stabilize a bone, which might require a subsequent surgery to remove.

After surgery to correct a compound fracture, care must be taken to reduce the risk of infection.
After surgery to correct a compound fracture, care must be taken to reduce the risk of infection.

The severity of the open fracture doesn’t mean that simple fractures, where the skin isn’t pierced, aren’t complex too. At least with a compound fracture, it’s easy to guess the injury needs treatment right away. With simple fractures, bones can still move and disrupt tissue inside and things like ligaments may be severed. This suggests people not delay in getting treatment for closed fractures, either.

Compound fractures are common among the elderly, as they have thinner skin and more brittle bones than younger people.
Compound fractures are common among the elderly, as they have thinner skin and more brittle bones than younger people.
A compound fracture, also known as an open break, may require the use of plates, rods and screws to realign the bone.
A compound fracture, also known as an open break, may require the use of plates, rods and screws to realign the bone.
Metal plates and screws can be used to put a bone back together after a compound fracture.
Metal plates and screws can be used to put a bone back together after a compound fracture.
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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