Broken Leg Recovery: What to Expect
Recovering from a broken leg can vary from person to person. It depends on what part of your leg you break, or fracture, and what type of treatment you need. For all leg fractures, recovery almost always includes a long period of physical therapy.
There are three main bones in your leg that can fracture. The first is the femur, the bone in your upper leg, which is the longest bone in your body. People who fracture this bone usually need surgery. The other two bones are in your lower leg—the shinbone, or tibia, and a smaller bone, the fibula. These two bones often fracture together. In some cases, these fractures may also require surgery.
Several types of fractures can occur in your leg:
Stable fracture: The bone pieces are close together and not out of place. Splinting and casting is the usual treatment.
Displaced fracture: The bone pieces are out of position. If they can be put back into place, splinting and casting is the usual treatment.
Comminuted fracture: This type of fracture involves several pieces of broken bones. These pieces are hard to get back into place, so surgery is the usual treatment.
Open fracture: Another name for this is compound fracture. A piece of broken bone has pierced the skin, or a cut in the skin goes down to the bone. Immediate surgery is necessary.
Recovery After a Fractured Femur
Surgery is almost always necessary to treat a fractured femur. Usually, a surgeon places a long metal rod into the bone to hold it in place. Plates, screws and pins also may be used to support the fracture. Your doctor will likely prescribe a strong pain reliever called an opioid. Use this medication the way your doctor prescribes. After several days, your doctor may switch you to over-the-counter pain medicine.
Physical therapy usually starts while you are still in the hospital. Your physical therapist may help you get up and walk within 1 to 2 days. You will need to use crutches or a walker. The physical therapist will help you learn how to use them. Your doctor will decide how much weight you can put on your leg.
You might need to go from the hospital to a rehabilitation, or rehab, center before you can go home. Healthcare providers at the rehab center will care for the wound from your surgery. You will also have physical therapy to prepare you for being on your own at home. Your physical therapist may help with the pain by using ice, heat, or a sound-wave treatment on your leg.
Physical therapy starts with movement exercises for your hip, back, knee and foot. With time, you will add strengthening exercises. You should be able to return to most activities in about six months. Full return to all activity may take up to a year.
It’s possible for complications to develop after surgery for a fractured femur. This includes infection, damage to nerves or blood vessels, and blood clots that can form in your leg and travel to your heart. Let your doctor know right away if you experience any of the following:
Coldness or numbness in your leg
Pain that is not controlled by your pain medication
Warmth, redness and tenderness in your leg
Call 911 if you have chest pain or trouble breathing.
Recovery After a Lower Leg Fracture
You may need surgery if you have a fracture of your lower leg that is open, very displaced, or comminuted. The surgery usually involves metal plates or a rod placed through the bone. Recovery will be very much like recovery from surgery for a fractured femur.
If you have a stable fracture, you may not need surgery. Instead, you may start with a splint to keep your fracture in the right position for the bone to heal. The splint allows some room for swelling. Loosen the splint if it gets too tight and be sure to keep it dry. After several days, your doctor may replace your splint with a cast. Keep the cast dry unless it's a waterproof one.
You will need to use crutches or a walker while your fracture heals. Your physical therapist will teach you how to use these assistive devices.
To treat pain, your doctor may recommend taking over-the-counter pain medicine. Using an ice pack and keeping your leg raised above the level of your heart as much as possible can also help reduce pain and swelling.
Your doctor will take X-rays every few weeks to see how your fracture is healing. While wearing your cast, you may start special exercises to get your ankle, knee and hip moving. These are called range-of-motion exercises. Your doctor will remove your cast after X-rays show enough healing. Most people need a cast for several weeks. After the cast is off, your doctor may switch you to a brace that you can take off and on.
Your doctor will tell you when you can put full weight on your leg. You should be able to return to most activities in about four months. It can take six months or longer to return to all activities.