Can You Feel Broken Bones Healing?

What it should feel like and how to speed healing

As your broken bone heals, it should go through different phases, each involving its own set of characteristics. The amount and type of pain and other symptoms will change, as will your range of motion and strength. Knowing these phases and what you should feel as you go through them can help you spot any abnormalities or complications early, so your doctor can deal with them right away.

Broken bones typically take at least six weeks to heal, and some may take much longer. Meanwhile, you don't just have to idly wait for the healing process to occur; you can take certain steps to help your body repair the break and get back to full functionality.

tips to heal a broken bone faster

Verywell / Brianna Gilmartin

Swelling

Swelling, or inflammation, sets in right after a fracture. Inflammation gets a bad rap because it's associated with injuries and causes a fair amount of the pain you experience, but it's an essential part of the healing process.

Think of the scene of a traffic accident or fire, when first responders rush to the area to help. Inside your body, those first responders come from the immune system, which kicks into high gear as soon as it registers the injury.

Your immune system uses a complex network of cells, hormones, and signals to create inflammation at the site of an injury. Why? Because an injury needs blood, which carries oxygen, nutrients, and specialized cells from the immune system that can begin to heal the damage right away.

Healing Time Depends On:

  • What bone you broke (smaller ones heal faster)
  • The severity of the break
  • How quickly and how effectively it's treated
  • How well you take care of it
  • The health of your bones and connective tissues
  • Whether you smoke, drink alcohol, or have nutritional deficiencies
  • Your overall health
  • Your age


Pain

Pain from a broken bone comes in three phases:

  • Acute pain
  • Sub-acute pain
  • Chronic pain

Acute Pain

Acute pain is that sudden, intense, oh-no-something-is-really-wrong kind of pain you get right after the fracture (or any kind of trauma). When you go to the hospital, you'll likely be given strong painkillers to help get you through the worst of it.

Inside your body, the break has caused damage to sensitive nerves that send rapid, sharp pain signals to the brain. Over the next few hours, the cells at the fracture site release healing chemicals and signals that cause new nerves to sprout.

These new nerves are what cause sharp pain when you move the broken bone and a dull, aching pain while it's resting. Think of the ache as a reminder not to use the injured part and the sharp pain as an alarm system for when you're harming yourself.

Once you've moved past the acute pain, if it returns, it could be a signal that something is wrong. Perhaps you bumped the bone or moved it in a way that hurt, or maybe it's not healing properly. You should let your doctor know about any unexplained return to the acute pain phase.

Sub-Acute Pain

Your pain level should decline to the sub-acute level once the break is treated and begins to heal, and it'll likely stay there for a few weeks. You may still be on pain medication, but it may be a lower dosage or a weaker drug.

The source of sub-acute pain is partly from the break—especially from scarring and any inflammation you may still have—but much of it stems from the immobility that's needed for your bones to heal properly. The connective tissues get stiff and the muscles lose strength. You may also lose bone mass.

All of those factors can contribute to your feeling weak when you first try to use the broken part. If it's your leg, you may feel like it won't support you. If it's your arm or wrist, you may not be able to lift or grip something tightly.

At some point during this phase, your doctor will likely encourage you to start moving and stretching and may have you start physical therapy. Be sure to follow directions about what types of movements are safe for you as well as how much activity is okay.

If all goes well, your bone will heal and your soft tissues will recover. Remember those nerves that sprouted during the acute phase? After a proper recovery, they should stop sending those signals and the lingering pain will go away. However, that doesn't happen in all cases.

Physical Therapy

A physical therapist can teach you the proper movements to use at each stage of the healing process so you don't do further damage. By helping you properly rehabilitate your muscles and connective tissues, they can reduce your pain, increase your strength, and help you heal as fast as possible.

Chronic Pain

When pain continues beyond the sub-acute phase, it's called chronic pain. Many people never get to this phase, but for those who do, the pain continues for long after the injury is healed. It may be caused by:

What is Central Sensitization?

Central sensitization is a change in how your central nervous system (brain and nerves of the spinal column) perceives a particular type of stimulus. In the case of a fracture, your nervous system continues to perceive movement and use of the formerly broken bone as painful, even when there's no tissue damage remaining.

Different doctors have different benchmarks they use to determine when pain is chronic, but many consider it about six months past when it should've ended. If you have ongoing pain for weeks or months after your fracture has healed and your soft tissues have been rehabilitated, let your doctor know. It may be that there's a lingering problem with the injury (nerve damage, scar tissue), or it may be that something else is causing your pain (undiagnosed arthritis, central sensitization.)

No matter the cause of your pain, you don't just have to suffer. Your doctor should be able to help you find effective ways to treat the underlying problem and manage your pain.

Helping Bones Heal

Healing a broken bone takes time and depends on several factors, including your age, overall health, nutrition, blood flow to the bone, and the type of treatment you receive. However, you can take steps to help your body heal the break:

If you've previously had slow-healing fractures, have diseases that could complicate healing, or have risk factors for slow healing, you may want to ask your doctor about medications that can help speed up the process. Some treatments for osteoporosis are known to have this effect.

Most Common Fractures

The most common fracture in children is the clavicle (collar bone). In those over age 75, hip fractures are the most common. Other commonly broken bones include the wrist, arm, and ankle.

When to Call a Doctor

Catching problems early and getting prompt treatment for them can prevent delays in the healing process. Contact your doctor if:

  • Your pain or inflammation suddenly increases
  • Your pain lingers for months or weeks beyond when the bone is healed
  • You see signs of infection
  • You have a change in your health that could impact the healing process
  • You think the healing process is taking too long
  • You don't progress in the way your doctor said to expect

Frequently Asked Questions

Which vitamins help broken bones heal?

Vitamins that support collagen production may help fractured bones heal. Supplements containing vitamin C, lysine, proline, and vitamin B6 have been shown to reduce discomfort and speed up the healing process.

Can a broken bone heal on its own without a cast?

It can heal, but there’s a huge risk it won’t be aligned right, which could cause chronic pain and disability. A cast or a softer splint ensures the broken pieces knit together properly and will allow you to heal more quickly. 

How long does it take a broken bone to heal?

Typically, it takes six to 12 weeks for a bone to heal, but hard-to-heal areas take longer; for example, scaphoid fractures in the wrist can take six months. Children recover much faster than adults, with injuries in older adults taking the longest amount of time to heal. 

A Word From Verywell

The pain and limited functionality that accompany a broken bone are tough to deal with. Getting treatment right away, following your medical team's advice, and taking steps to help your body heal can get you through it without more pain and disability than are necessary, and will get you back to functioning as quickly as possible.

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Article Sources
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