First aid for sprains and broken bones - FamilyEducation

Temporary Treatment for Sprains and Breaks

Learn what steps to take to treat a sprain or break temporarily, until you can get professional care.

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You see children with broken arms or fingers much more often than you do adults. It's a good thing, too. Bones get more brittle with age. An adult's broken arm would take longer to heal, and it might lead to chronic pain. Besides, adults rarely consider getting autographs on a cast “fun.” But ask most children about a broken arm or leg, and they will proudly show you colorful, graffiti-covered casts (that are usually gray with dirt).

Whether it happens to a child or an adult, a sprain or a fracture can be serious. Depending on its location, a broken bone can be life-threatening. It can lead to shock, a weak pulse, or breathing difficulties. And at the very least, a sprain or break hurts—a lot.

The steps you take to treat a sprain or break until you can get professional care can make the difference in whether a break heals correctly and in proper alignment. It might determine, for example, whether a nose will be permanently out of joint (excuse the expression).

The Differences Between Sprains and Breaks

How are sprains and breaks different? Not by much. A sprain is kind of like a strain at the bone itself; its muscle fibers, connective tissues, or ligaments have been stretched to the max or wrenched completely out of whack.

As you might guess, a break goes one step further: the bone actually breaks. In fact, a break doesn't have to occur only at muscle junctures, such as the elbow or ankle. Bones can break anywhere along their mass, from lower arms to upper thighs, from buttocks and hips to collar bones.

Only with an x-ray can you definitely tell whether a bone is broken. Because sprains and breaks can look similar, you should treat a sprain as if it were a break, and you should have it x-rayed. It's better to be safe than sorry.

Signs of bone injury or joint sprain include:

  • Feeling or hearing an actual “snap”
  • Bluish discoloration or bruising over injured bone or joint
  • Abnormal position of limb
  • Inability to move a limb on one's own
  • Excessive pain at injury site
  • Swelling, numbness, and tingling near injured bone or joint