What is a thigh or lower leg fracture?

A thigh fracture occurs when the thighbone (the longest, strongest bone in the body) breaks. A thigh fracture is also called femur shaft fracture.

A lower leg fracture is a break in the tibia (shinbone). A tibia fracture is the most commonly broken bone in the body. Lower leg fractures are also called tibia shaft fractures (shinbone fractures).

Causes of a thigh or shinbone fracture

Causes of a thigh or shinbone fracture include:
  • Car crashes
  • Sports such as downhill skiing, soccer, football or basketball
  • Poor bone quality — elderly patients can also suffer from a thigh fracture due to poor bone quality.

Risk factors for a thigh or shinbone fracture

  • Age — the risk for thigh or lower leg fractures increases with age as bones weaken.
  • Gender — more than 70% of fractures in the lower extremity occur in women.
  • Heredity — if you have a family history of broken bones, you could be at higher risk for a thigh or lower leg fracture.
  • Arthritis — patients with osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis are more likely to sustain a thigh or lower leg fracture.
  • Lifestyle — smoking, alcohol use, lack of exercise, poor nutrition can put you at a higher risk for a lower extremity fracture.

Symptoms of a thigh or shinbone fracture

Symptoms of a thigh fracture include:
  • Pain when putting weight on the leg
  • Swelling, bruising and tenderness to the touch
  • One leg may appear shorter than the other
Symptoms of a shinbone (tibia) fracture include:
  • Pain and inability to walk on the leg
  • Instability in the leg
  • Loss of feeling in the foot
  • Bone breaking through the skin or pressing out on the skin

Diagnosis of a thigh or shinbone fracture

If you suspect you have a thigh or lower leg fracture, visit your doctor right away. If the bone is protruding, visit the ER immediately.

Your doctor will take a full medical history and inquire how the injury was sustained as well as determine if there are any other injuries.

In the physical exam, he or she will look for the following:
  • Breaks in skin
  • Swelling or bruising
  • Instability in the affected area

Your doctor will also order an x-ray or CT scan. The x-ray will show if the bone is broken, where the bone is broken and how severe the injury is. A CT scan can further show the extent of the injury.

Treatment for a thigh or shinbone fracture

Your doctor will work with you to determine the appropriate treatment for your case.

Treatment for thigh fracture includes:

Nonsurgical treatments for femur fractures can include bracing/casting or skeletal traction, which is a pulley system of weights and counterweights that hold the broken bones together. Surgical treatments for femur fractures are common and successful. There are a variety of surgical options to repair the broken femur including:

  • External fixation — the physician will apply an external surgical piece that acts as a stabilizing frame and holds the bones into place.
  • Internal fixation — this is the most common method for treating a broken femur. A metal rod is inserted into the marrow canal of the femur and then down the fracture to keep it in place.
  • Internal fixation with rods and plate — the fracture is repaired and then metal plates and rods are attached to the bone and secured together.
Treatment for shinbone fracture includes:
  • Splinting — when the lower leg is splinted, the leg can swell and the splint can be adjusted as necessary.
  • Brace — a functional brace immobilizes the tibia injury and can be adjusted as necessary as the injury heals.
  • Surgical realignment — although there are some patients who will not require surgery to repair a fractured tibia (shinbone), many patients choose to get surgery to ensure you return to normal activity as soon as possible.

Recovery from a thigh or lower leg fracture

Recovery from thigh (distal femur) fracture

Recovery from a thigh fracture (distal femur fracture) is a long process which may take up to a year. The exact time is dependent on your age, overall health and the type of fracture you have sustained. In order to speed recovery, patients are encouraged to move around directly after treatment.

Recovery from tibia (shinbone) fractures

Recovery from shinbone fractures can take as long as four to six months. In less healthy patients where the injury is severe, it could be a year before the patient can return to normal activity. Early activity is important to speed the recovery process.

With both thigh or tibia fractures, work with your physician and physical therapist to determine your appropriate level of activity during each phase of the recovery process.

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