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Can you walk on a broken leg?

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Updated August 17, 2011

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

broken ankle

Bruising and swelling have more to do with whether it's broken than being able to walk on it.

(c) Flickr user knitgirl63
Question: Can you walk on a broken leg?
There's a common belief -- especially among coaches and parents of young athletes -- that if you can put weight on an injured leg, it must not be fractured. Responding to accidents and falls on the ambulance, that's one of the more common statements I've heard: "I'm walking on it; doesn't that mean it's not broken?"
Answer: A bone can be broken and still support your weight.

Fractures come in all different shapes, sizes and severity. Sometimes, a really bad complete fracture will not be able to carry or support weight, or otherwise function properly. Most of the time, however, fractures can indeed support weight. You can probably even walk on your broken leg -- it just hurts like the dickens.

Honestly, unless the bone is sticking out or your leg is bent in a place where it's not supposed to bend, then there's no way to tell for sure if your bone is broken without an x-ray. If there is some crazy deformity or you feel a crunchy bag-of-gravel feeling when you move it (crepitus), then an honest-to-goodness fractured bone would be a pretty safe bet, even though you might still be able to limp to the car.

Some of the worst broken bones -- the kind that require surgery to heal properly -- can still bear weight or move around generally the way they're supposed to move.

When to Go to the Doctor

There are some signs of a possible fracture that deserve a trip to the doctor even if the arm or leg turns out not be broken after all. Having one of these is worrisome; having all of these is a pretty bad injury.

  • Bruising. When a leg or an arm is black and blue, some blood has leaked into the tissues. The blood is able to seep out of the capillaries where it's supposed to stay because something (muscle, fat, skin or bone) is torn or broken.
  • Swelling. Anything that leads to an accumulation of extra fluid in the soft tissues (muscle, bone and fat) causes swelling. Injuries break down cells and cause them to leak their fluid into the tissue spaces. Blood leaking from capillaries also leads to swelling. Ice on an injury causes the arteries feeding the broken capillaries to shrink and slow the blood flow, which helps reduce swelling (or at least keep it from getting worse).
  • Deformity. When the bone is broken and sticking out at an odd angle, we call that deformity. We don't mean to be mean; it's just deformed.
  • Crepitus. As described above, crepitus is a grinding or crunchy feeling that comes from the broken bits of bone rubbing together. At its worst, crepitus feels like squeezing a bag of gravel rocks. At a minimum, it feels like rubbing the broken ends of a piece of sidewalk chalk together.

What to Do Whether You Go to the Doctor or Not

RICE is the preferred method for treating injuries to bones and joints, whether they're broken or not. RICE isn't the food; it stands for Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation.

  • Rest the leg (stop walking on it -- it could be broken).
  • Ice the injury, but don't put the ice directly on the skin or leave it longer than 20 minutes because you can cause frostbite from icing an injury.
  • Compress the injury by wrapping it with an Ace bandage or a similar compression bandage.
  • Elevate the injured arm or leg, preferably above the heart. If you're elevating a leg, it's best to lay down on the couch, and may I suggest the remote control and a beverage suitable for your age group.
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  5. Breaks & Sprains
  6. Fractures
  7. Can You Walk on a Broken Leg?

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