About 1 million bone fractures (or broken bones) occur every year in the United States — so often that they’re considered “common” injuries. For anyone who’s ever suffered a broken bone, though, it doesn’t feel like a common occurrence and recovery can be challenging.
The biggest issue is usually the time it takes. Most bones need between 4 and 16 weeks to heal, depending on the severity of the break, location of the injury and age and overall health of the patient. The good news is that complications are rare, but during healing time, quality of life can suffer.
If you broke your arm, for example, you’re going to have a hard time doing simple daily activities like styling your hair, carrying your stuff to work, riding a bike or cooking a meal. If you broke your leg, you’re going to find walking, driving and exercising extremely challenging. Even if you just broke your thumb, you’re going to have to make a number of adjustments throughout your day while that fracture heals.
How Does a Bone Heal?
After a bone is fractured, there is a process that it goes through to repair itself. This process involves three stages as follows.
This is the stage when the immune system goes to work on the problem. Inflammation starts immediately after the injury as the immune cells flock to the location and start reparative processes. They also help kill any germs that might have gotten into the area and clean away bone fragments.
There is usually bleeding and blood clotting at the fracture site. The area may appear swollen and red. This stage usually lasts for 1 to 7 days and helps provide the initial structure and framework on which the new bone will be built.
During this stage, the body starts rebuilding bone. First, it lays down fibrous tissue over the areas of blood clotting and forms “soft callus” tissue, which is made of collagen and develops around the fracture. It usually starts around the edges and gradually moves inward.
In time, the body adds minerals to this soft callus to create hard callus, which is another name for bone. This part of the process usually begins about 2 weeks after the initial break and continues until the bone is considered about healed, which can take 4 to 16 weeks.
Once the new bone is formed, the body acts like a sculptor, shaping it and carving it until it resembles as closely as possible its original shape. Special cells break down any extra bone and help the new bone to become more compact. Blood circulation also improves in the area. This stage can take quite a long time, from several months to several years after the injury.
If you want your fracture to heal as quickly as possible, it’s best to avoid any activity that may slow the process. The following five things can interfere with healing and could keep you in that last longer than you’d like.
1. Rushing to Move
It can be tempting to push your recovery. You want to get back into your life, and this broken bone is slowing you down. If you rush movement before the bone is ready, however, you could set yourself back by several weeks or more. Be sure to follow your doctor’s instructions and keep that bone still for as long as you need to.
2. Continuing Unhealthy Habits
Smoking and drinking too much alcohol can both delay healing of a broken bone. Smoking damages small blood vessels and can block blood flow, which can rob the injury of the nutrients it needs to repair. Alcohol, too, actually increases inflammation and promotes bone loss.
3. Consuming Too Much Caffeine
Caffeine can interfere with how much calcium you absorb from food and supplements and new bone needs calcium. Studies on caffeine and bone health are mixed — some show that drinking a lot of coffee leads to an increased risk of fractures. However, most recent studies show no effect of calcium consumption on bones.
While your bone is fragile and repairing itself, however, you’re safest to avoid consuming too much caffeine — four cups of coffee a day may be too much — or at least be sure you’re getting enough calcium (more on that below).
4. Consuming Too Much Salt
Too much sodium in your diet can also negatively affect bone healing by robbing your system of calcium. In a 2008 study, researchers studied salt and calcium intake in postmenopausal women and found that moderately high salt intake caused a significant increase in the amount of calcium excreted (unused) in the urine.
In a later study, researchers found the same thing — phosphorus, calcium and potassium urinary excretion increased with an increase in sodium. Other studies have shown mixed results, but while your fracture is healing, it may be best to cut back on the sodium.
5. Failing to Ask for Help
It can be difficult after an injury to ask for the help you need, but if you don’t, you may end up pushing yourself too hard, which can delay healing. Follow your doctor’s instructions and reach out when you need assistance until you’ve recovered.
Whenever your body has to heal itself, it requires additional nutrients and energy to manage the job. Below are five tips that can help you increase both.
1. Eat More of These Types of Foods
The right nutrients are key for optimal healing. It’s best to eat an overall healthy diet as always, but while you’re recovering, focus on these items:
- High-calcium foods: New bone needs calcium, so add more dairy foods — if you’re not sensitive to them —leafy green veggies, seeds, seafood, figs, almonds, and broccoli.
- Lean proteins: Proteins make up the building blocks of new bone, so you need to be sure you’re getting enough. Proteins also help spur the release of growth factors that help support bone renewal. Protein is so important that if you’re not getting enough, your healing could slow. In one study, for example, subjects given protein nutrition support experienced improved healing while those deprived of protein did not heal as they should. So, make sure to choose foods high in protein while you’re healing — lean meats, eggs, almonds, oats, Greek yogurt, and fish.
- Good sources of vitamin K: Vitamin K is critical to bone health. In a 2001 study, researchers reported that “there is a consistent line of evidence … that vitamin K can improve bone health.” Go for leafy green veggies, cruciferous veggies, fish, meat, eggs, prunes, and kiwis.
- More vitamin C: In a 2001 study, researchers gave one group of subjects with broken bones high doses of vitamin C and another group no additional supplemental support. The vitamin C-supplemented group went through the stages of fracture healing faster compared to the control group. Other studies have shown similar results, so try to add more citrus fruits, bell peppers, berries, broccoli, kiwis, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, melons and pineapples to your diet.
- Enough zinc: As with vitamin C, zinc may also help support faster fracture healing. Studies have found that given zinc during the healing process experience enhanced healing processes. Foods high in zinc include pumpkin seeds, dark chocolate, sesame seeds, chickpeas, lamb and grass-fed beef.
2. Try These Supplements
In addition to a healthy diet, you may benefit from some supplements while healing. Nutrients needed for optimal bone repair include:
- Omega-3 fatty acids (fish oil)
- Vitamin B6
- Vitamin D
3. Be Disciplined About Your Exercise
Exercise is extremely important to healing, but you have to be sure you’re doing it right. Too much too early can deter healing, but too little, later on, can slow your recovery. Check with your doctor, and follow the instructions from your physical therapist.
Several studies have indicated that exercise can help broken bones heal faster. In one 2011 study, for example, researchers found that every time the cells in your bones “come under load,” which means you’re engaged in the weight-bearing exercise like walking or jogging, they release a substance called “ATP” that helps promote the healing of fractures.
Physical therapy, as well, helps you rebuild strength and regain range of motion in the injured area. During your healing time, you’ll lose some muscle strength because you’ll have to keep the area still. Physical therapy exercises can help retrain those muscles so you can return to your regular activity.
Once you have your doctor’s permission, incorporate more weight-bearing exercises into your routine. Good options include the following:
- Fast walking
- Jumping rope
- Stair climbing
- Weight training
- Jumping jacks
4. Choose Natural Pain-Relief Options
Your injury is likely to hurt for a while, which will tempt you to use over-the-counter pain relievers like aspirin and ibuprofen for relief. These medications, however, may slow healing.
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs reduce the inflammation around the injury. Inflammation is a key part of the early healing process. During this time, the cells involved in inflammation — including cyclooxygenase enzymes (COX-1 and COX-2) — begin initial tissue repair and get things rolling on developing new bone. Aspirin and ibuprofen, however, inhibit these enzymes.
That means it’s best to avoid these pain relievers as much as you can. Obviously, if you’re in a lot of pain, you’ll need some relief, so talk to your doctor, but the more you can avoid these particular pain relievers, the better. Fortunately, there are alternatives. They include:
- Vitamin C — some studies have found that it can ease the pain of fractures
- Omega-3 fatty acids, which are natural anti-inflammatories that don’t interfere with healing as they don’t affect Cox-1 and Cox-2 enzymes
- Turmeric, which is also a natural anti-inflammatory
- Bromelain, which comes from pineapple, it helps take down the swelling
- Arnica, which helps relieve swelling and inflammation
- Garlic, which reduces inflammation
Once the cast is off, you can also use essential oils on a daily basis to help ease the pain, Helichrysum, fir and cypress, when rubbed on the area. can help you feel better — always mix with a carrier oil first, like olive or jojoba oil. Arnica cream may also help.
5. Improve Your Sleep Habits
While you’re sleeping, your body is most active conducting repairs. If you don’t get enough sleep on most nights, your healing may proceed more slowly.
What if your broken bone is interfering with your sleep? Here are some tips that may help:
- Make it a priority: You need a good night’s sleep most nights if you want that bone to heal more quickly. Make a priority to get 7 to 8 hours.
- Elevate the injured area: Most broken bones require elevation. This can make it difficult to sleep as you usually do. If you have an adjustable bed, it will be easy. Otherwise, use pillows to manage the elevation in a way that allows you to rest.
- Reduce the chance of damage: It can be tough to sleep while a bone is healing as you may worry about rolling onto it and damaging it somehow. Again, pillows can help. Consider long body-length pillows that are more likely to keep you where you want to be, so you don’t have to worry about it.
- Banish your pets: If your pets normally sleep with you, it may be time to make a change until you get better. A pet’s movements can wake you slightly during the night, affecting your deep sleep and potentially slowing healing. If you can’t bear to be separated, make sure the pets sleep on the floor and not in the bed with you.
- Practice good sleep hygiene: Keep the room clean and dark (light disturbs sleep hormones), banish all technology from the bedroom, make sure you have a comfortable mattress and go to bed and get up at the same time every day.
- Try sleepy teas: Some herbal teas can help you relax and fall asleep easier when enjoyed before bed. Try chamomile, lavender, valerian, lemon balm, and passionflower.
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