Tibial fractures refer to breaks or cracks in the tibia, which is more commonly known as the shinbone.
What You Need to Know About Tibial Fractures
- What is a Tibial Fracture?
- What Causes Tibial Fractures?
- Tibial Fracture Symptoms
- How is a Tibial Fracture Diagnosed?
- Tibial Fracture Treatment
What is a Tibial Fracture?
The tibia is the larger of the two bones in the lower leg and supports the majority of your body weight. It plays a vital role in proper body movement, especially for ankle and knee mechanics. When this vital bone is broken or cracked, it's called a tibial fracture.
Typically, tibial fractures involve breaks due to traumatic injury or cracks caused by repetitive strain on the bone (also known as tibial stress fractures). Before you can receive proper treatment, it's important to understand which type of tibial fracture you may have suffered.
Types of Tibial Fractures
The term tibial fracture is used to refer to many different types of breaks and cracks in the shinbone. Depending on where the fracture is located along the tibia, how much the bone has shifted, and how much damage has been done to the surrounding soft tissues, a tibial fracture may be classified, diagnosed, and treated differently.
Let's take a closer look at the various classifications of tibial fractures and their defining characteristics:
A stable fracture, or non-displaced fracture, refers to a break where the broken parts of your tibia can still line up correctly, and the bone can maintain its correct position while your injury heals.
Unlike a stable or non-displaced fracture, a displaced fracture means that the broken parts of your tibia have been shifted out of their natural alignment. This type of fracture is more likely to require surgery to realign the broken tibia.
Open or Compound Fracture
Open fractures (also called compound fractures) refer to injuries where the broken tibia has punctured your skin, or you suffer a deep wound that exposes the broken bone. Typically, these serious fractures can take longer to heal, may expose you to a higher risk of infection, and more frequently involve damage to the surrounding ligaments, tendons, or muscles.
With closed fractures, the skin around the fracture is not punctured, and there is no visible bone.
A transverse fracture involves a straight, horizontal break across the tibial shaft (the long and narrow portion of the tibia).
An oblique fracture involves an angled break across the tibial shaft.
Like the stripes on a candy cane or a barber pole, a spiral fracture wraps around the tibial shaft.
This type of fracture is extremely unstable. It occurs when the tibia breaks into three or more pieces.
A tibial fracture can make you put your whole life on pause. If you are experiencing leg pain, schedule an appointment with a Resurgens Orthopaedic physician today.
What Causes Tibial Fractures?
The tibia is a strong, resilient bone that supports most of your body weight, but it is not immune to fractures. Typically, tibial fractures are caused by a great amount of force or pressure being exerted on the tibia, although long-term exposure to stress or microtraumas can also cause the condition. People who play high-impact sports or suffer from diseases that weaken the bones are also more likely to suffer a tibia fracture.
Some examples of activities, conditions, or injuries that can lead to a tibial fracture include:
- Traumatic injuries sustained in an accident, such as a fall or a car accident
- Participating in contact sports like football or hockey or other sporting activities that carry some risk of high-impact injury, like skiing
- Osteoporosis, a disease that weakens bones, can increase your chance of suffering a tibial fracture
- Long-distance running can subject your shinbone to repeated stress over time and cause a tibial stress fracture
Tibial Fracture SymptomsGenerally, the symptoms of a tibia fracture will be hard to ignore. You will likely feel localized pain around the site of the fracture, and it may be difficult or even impossible to put weight on the injured leg.
However, in the case of a stress fracture, the onset of pain may be slower and more insidious. At first, you may only feel pain while doing an activity that stresses the injury, such as running, but over time it will grow more noticeable.
Other general symptoms of a tibial fracture might include:
- Swelling in the lower leg
- Discoloration or bruising around the shinbone
- Bone protruding through the skin or pushing on the skin and creating a tent-like appearance
- Numbness, tingling, or burning sensations in the lower leg, which may indicate damage to neurovascular structures
- In the case of a tibial plateau (top of the tibia) or a tibial plafond (bottom of the tibia) fracture, there may be associated instability or inability to flex the knee or ankle, respectively
How is a Tibial Fracture Diagnosed?
Diagnosis for a tibial fracture will generally start with a physical examination of the injury, and your doctor will also ask you questions about your medical history and how the injury occured. During the physical exam, your doctor may need to press on the injured area to determine if there is a fracture (and what type of fracture it may be).
Your doctor may also want to order a variety of diagnostic tests to better understand the nature of your injury. Those test may include:
- An X-ray of the tibia
- A computed tomography scan, also known as a CT scan or CAT scan. This can provide a more comprehensive picture of the tibia than an X-ray.
- A magnetic resonance imaging scan, also known as a MRI, which provides a more detailed image of the soft tissues around the tibia, like bones, muscles, and ligaments
Tibial Fracture Treatment
Your treatment options for a broken tibia will depend on the specific cause and nature of your injury, your overall health at the time, and whether or not surrounding muscles, tendons, or ligaments were damaged.
Some tibial fractures may heal with just a cast, while others may require surgery. Your Resurgens Orthopaedics physician will carefully evaluate your non-surgical and surgical options, and help develop a treatment plan that works best for you.
While everyone's treatment plan will depend on the specific circumstances of their injury, some tibial fractures may not require surgery, or it may not be possible due to health issues.
Generally, tibial fractures that are more stable, have minimal bone displacement, and are extra-articular (meaning the fracture does extend into the joint surfaces) will require surgery less frequently than more severe or unstable fractures. Most stress fractures can also be treated without surgery.
The most common non-surgical treatments include:
- Closed reduction and immobilization of the leg in a cast
- The use of a hinged knee brace, which partially limits the amount of weight your leg must bear
- Physical therapy, especially range of motion (ROM) therapy
- The use of a functional brace - also called a traction brace - which can be used after transitioning out of a cast (or immediately, in the case of less severe fractures)
When a tibial fracture is open, has significantly displaced the bone, or is intra-articular, then your doctor is much more likely to recommend surgery. That's also true if previous non-surgical measurements are unsuccessful in treating your fracture.
The surgical procedure your doctor recommends will depend on the specific type of fracture and the extent of your injury. For example, severe compound fractures will require more immediate intervention to clean the area as well as antibiotic treatment to help reduce the chance of serious infection. And while the specific application and location of surgical intervention can vary, most operations involve one of the following:
- The placement of metal screws, pins, or plates on the outside or inside of your leg, which can help stabilize the injury and keep your bones aligned while they heal
- The use of intramedullary nailing (IMN), a procedure where a rod is placed down the length of your tibia to keep the bone aligned
At Resurgens Orthopaedics, we understand that every patient has unique needs and customize our treatment plans to meet those needs. If you are experiencing leg pain, schedule an appointment with a Resurgens Orthopaedics physician today.