What are the signs of a broken bone?

Dr. Darria Long Gillespie, MD
Emergency Medicine
The hallmarks of a broken bone are swelling (often significant, like the size of a golf ball), large bruising, and significant pain. Usually, the pain of a broken bone is so severe that you can’t bear weight on it -- that is the #1 sign. If you have any of the above symptoms -- or any deformity, another obvious sign -- you need to have a doctor evaluate it.
The first thing the doctor will likely do is an x-ray. In some rare cases (older adults, mainly) a CT scan will be necessary, but fractures in most healthy people will show up on an x-ray. If in doubt, the doctor may put you in a splint for protection anyway.
Other injuries that can cause similar symptoms, such as ligament, muscle or tendon tears, will not show up on an x-ray. If your doctor thinks you may have one of these, she may elect to have an MRI done as an outpatient.
It's not always easy to know when you have a broken bone. Sprains and strains have some of the same symptoms. Still, here are a few things you may notice with a broken bone:
  • When the injury happens, you may hear a snap or grinding noise
  • The area may swell (get bigger, like it's filling up with water)
  • The skin may bruise (turn red and purple, or black and blue)
  • The injured part may be very painful to touch, press on, or move
  • The bone may poke through the skin
  • The injured part may look crooked or have lumps that are different from swelling
  • With a leg injury, the pain may be so bad that you can't stand or walk on the leg

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.