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How To Recognize and Treat a Broken Leg

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Updated January 23, 2014

Broken legs can range from simply painful injuries to life-threatening emergencies. You must recognize a broken leg to decide how to respond to it. Call 911 for a leg broken above the knee.

Signs and symptoms of a broken leg:

  • pain (almost always present)
  • swelling
  • bruising
  • deformity (leg appears out-of-place)
  • numbness or tingling
  • broken skin with bone visible
  • limited mobility of the leg

 

Difficulty: N/A

Time Required: Depends on the severity of the broken leg

Here's How:

  1. Safety First! Make sure the victim is in a safe location. It is more important to worry about rescuer and victim ongoing safety than to worry about one broken leg. Follow universal precautions and wear personal protective equipment if you have it.
  2. Check ABC's. Make sure the victim has an Airway, is Breathing, and has Circulation. Broken legs can be very distracting injuries. Most of the time, however, they look worse than they are.
  3. Control bleeding.
  4. Look for other injuries. If a victim shows signs of injury to the head, neck, or back, DO NOT move the victim.
  5. Cover any broken skin with sterile dressings. If needed, the wound can be rinsed -- try to use sterile water or saline solution.
  6. If an ambulance is responding, have the victim remain still and wait for the ambulance. If an ambulance is unavailable, the broken leg may need to be splinted. Be sure to immobilize the joints (knee, ankle, hip) above and below the break. Do not wrap the leg too tight.
  7. Put ice on the break to reduce swelling. Put a sheet or towel between the ice and the skin to prevent frostbite. Leave ice on for 15 minutes, then remove ice for 15 minutes.
  8. Elevate the leg above the level of the heart, if possible.
  9. Lay the victim on his or her back to reduce the chance of shock. Cover the victim with a blanket.

Tips:

  1. Remember, DO NOT move a victim with suspected head, neck, or back injuries unless it is to keep rescuers or victim safe.
  2. DO NOT move a victim of a broken leg unless necessary for the safety of rescuers or victim.
  3. DO NOT straighten a broken leg or change its position unless the victim's foot (on the leg with the break) is cold, blue, numb, or paralyzed. Only attempt to return a deformed leg to the anatomical position.
  4. Call 911 for a leg broken above the knee, a broken hip, a broken pelvis, a neck or back injury, or a head injury. It is still acceptable to summon an ambulance for a leg broken below the knee, but call on the ambulance agency's non-emergency line.
  5. If splinting the broken leg, try using a broom handle, long wooden spoon, tube from a vacuum cleaner, or a jack handle from the car.
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