Bone Fracture vs. Break: What's the Difference?

You rush into an urgent care clinic with what you think is a broken arm. They take you in for some quick x-rays down the hall and then tell you to wait for a doctor. The door opens and the doctor walks in with your x-ray results. He tells you that you have a fracture in your radius. You sigh in relief, thinking you broke it for sure. 

urgent care clinic

Well as it turns out, you actually did break it. Contrary to common belief, a fracture is the same thing as a break -- doctors use the two terms interchangeably. Both words refer to a disruption in the bone structure so whether your doctor calls it a "hairline fracture" or a "hairline break" is inconsequential. They may use other words in addition to those to specify further the extent of the injury. 

Words You Might Hear before Break or Fracture
There are words that your doctor might plug in before "break" to identify the location of the break in the bone. 

  • Diaphyseal: The center of the bone, also known as the shaft.

  • Metaphyseal:Refers to breaks at one end of the bone (not at the joint).

  • Peri-Articular: A fracture on the joint surface at the end of the bone.

  • Intra-Articular: A break through the joint via cartilage.

  • Proximal: Closer to the middle of the body -- upper part of the bone.

  • Distal: Other end; farther away from the center of the body -- lower end of the bone.

Now that you know whether you have a diaphyseal fracture or a metaphyseal fracture, your doctor might also indicate how the break occurred, i.e. the alignment. These words might go at the very beginning and give you the whole picture.

  • Non-Displaced: The bone is still in perfect alignment even after the break; one side of the break wasn't displaced from the other side.

  • Minimally Displaced: A small displacement, usually not significant.

  • Displaced: The bone is way off its mark. Your doctor might refer to the amount of displacement in percentages.

  • Depression: Refers to a joint fracture (intra-articular) that's out of alignment with the bone.

  • Angulated: The bones are not aligned at a certain angle.

  • Shortening: The nearby muscles pull the ends of the bone together which actually shortens the bone.

Breaks and fractures are still different than tears and sprains, so it's important not to confuse them. You usually "sprain" your ankle -- over 80% of which result from an inward rolling (inversion) of the ankle -- which refers to the twisting or pulling of ligaments. You should visit your local urgent care clinic in any case to get treatment. 

So next time you're in the urgent care clinic and your doctor tells you that you have displaced metaphyseal fracture, you'll know exactly what he's talking about.