Clavicle fractures are a common medical condition among the young and the elderly. They nonetheless require immediate medical attention.
What Is a Clavicle?
The clavicle is also known more commonly as the collarbone. It is the rigid bone that lies horizontally from the base of the neck to your shoulder. The purpose of the clavicle is to connect the top of the sternum, or breastbone, to the scapula, or shoulder blade. You can feel your clavicles by touching the area between your shoulder and neck at the top of the chest.
Clavicle Fractures Are Very Common
Broken collarbones are a common medical issue. The clavicle is the most commonly broken bone in the body. It also represents between 44% and 66% of all shoulder bone fractures. In adults, clavicle fractures represent 5% of all broken bones, while they represent 13% of all broken bones in children.
Broken clavicles are observed most commonly among those aged less than 25 years old and above the age of 70. The clavicle is not fully formed until at least 20 years old, making it vulnerable to fractures before this time. The elderly are at increased risk due to osteoporosis and similar conditions.
What Typically Causes a Collarbone Fracture
Clavicle fractures are commonly the result of automobile accidents. Blunt force trauma from contact sports such as football can also commonly inflict a broken collarbone. Among those less than 25 years of age, men are much more commonly victims of a broken collarbone, likely due to reckless behavior and propensity for contact sports.
Among the elderly, it is more common that a broken clavicle will be caused by a fall. Typically, these are falls in which the patient lands upon their shoulder. Sometimes landing upon an outstretched hand can cause the clavicle to break. Broken collarbones are more common among elderly women, due to their increased risk of osteoporosis.
What Are the Signs of A Broken Clavicle?
There are a number of signs and symptoms of a broken collarbone.
- Pain and swelling in the shoulder area.
- Bruising in and around the shoulder.
- Difficulty moving the arm and shoulder.
- A grinding feeling upon attempting to raise the arm.
- A bump in the skin in the collarbone area. This may be difficult to see due to swelling.
- Sagging of the shoulder.
How Is a Broken Collarbone Treated?
A physician will do a physical examination to determine the cause of symptoms. In almost all cases, your doctor will have an X-ray done in order to image the break directly.
Because clavicle breaks are usually due to force trauma, doctors will generally examine the patient for additional injuries, especially if other symptoms are present.
Over the counter pain medications, especially anti-inflammatory ones such as aspirin, should be taken. If the pain is severe enough, a doctor opt for the patient to take prescription pain medicine.
The shoulder may be placed in a splint or a brace to prevent movement. The arm will also usually be placed in a sling.
It is very rare for a broken clavicle to require surgery. However, if the clavicle is broken into multiple pieces, or if the parts of the broken bone are otherwise not aligned, then surgery may be necessary to secure the pieces into place so that they may heal. The surgeon will likely use plates, pins, screws, and similar instruments to ensure the bone stays in place. Surgery may also be necessary if ligaments are also damaged.
Healing and Prognosis
Most collarbone fractures will heal easily heal on their own. After a week or so, a doctor will usually have the patient start practicing occasional shoulder exercises. This is to ensure that the shoulder maintains as much range of movement as possible. Failing to do so may result in painful stiffening of the shoulder joint.
A broken clavicle will usually take 6 to twelve weeks to fully heal. During this time, patients should refrain from extensive use of their arm. Attempting to lift too much weight with the arm may cause the collarbone to be rebroken.
While the collarbone is healing, doctors will generally require the patient to come in for additional examinations to monitor the rate of healing. A final X-ray may be done when the doctor suspects the collarbone is done healing in order to confirm that the injury is fully healed.
Recovering from a clavicle break that requires surgery does not necessarily require more recovery time, however patients who need surgery may be required to wear a sling for a much longer time than those who do not. Some implements used to secure the collarbone may be left in the body, but a second surgery may be necessary to remove those that are irritating or causing discomfort.
Clavicle Fractures Are Fortunately Simple to Treat
While broken collarbones are relatively common compared to other broken bone injuries, they are fortunately also relatively easy to treat. Most patients are able to return to normal activities within a few months.