The collarbone, called the clavicle by doctors, is an "S" shaped bone that connects the shoulder to the breastplate (called the sternum). The clavicle is very near the skin, and it can be seen and felt very easily in most people. The joint between the clavicle and a part of the shoulder blade called the acromion is known as the A/C joint. The clavicle is designed to support the shoulder, acting like a strut that helps to align the shoulder with the rest of the chest.
Having a broken collarbone is very common. They usually occur when someone falls onto an outstretched hand or onto the point of their shoulder. Most people know that they have broken a bone because they often hear the sound of the bone cracking, and there is a lot of pain at the site of the fracture. Also, because the clavicle is very close to the skin, the swelling and the bruising that is a natural part of every broken clavicle can easily be seen. If you see a doctor after you have a broken collarbone, they will always take an x-ray in order to see how the bone has been broken. The result of the x-ray determines what kind of treatment is best for you.
More than eighty-five percent of clavicle fractures occur in the middle of the bone. This type of fracture rarely ever needs surgery, except in special circumstances. Instead, the bone is allowed to heal on its own, and your doctor will be able to suggest ways in which you can ease the pain and discomfort. This will usually include wearing a sling or a "figure of eight" bandage for one to two weeks, applying ice packs to the area of the break, and taking mild pain pills. Most people find that a sling is more comfortable than a "figure of eight" splint, so doctors recommend this type of bandage more often.
How long does a broken collarbone take to heal?
The younger you are when you break your clavicle, the less time it takes for the fracture to heal. Children will heal a broken bone in 3 to 4 weeks, teenagers will need 6 to 8 weeks before the broken clavicle completely heals, and adults may take up to four months. During this period of time, it is important that you make sure that your shoulder, elbow, wrist and hand does not get stiff. It always seems as if it takes forever for a broken bone to heal, but rest assured that the odds are in your favor. More than ninety-five percent of clavicle fractures will eventually heal on their own, without requiring surgery.
However, nearly all clavicle fractures will heal with a noticeable bump under the skin in the area where the bone was broken. While many people do not like the way that this bump looks, the bump rarely causes much pain or discomfort. People who commonly carry very heavy backpacks can have problems with the shoulder straps irritating the skin, but aside from this situation, it is very rare to have any long-lasting problems after a broken clavicle has healed. Most people can return to the sports that they like to play and do all of the things that they would normally do, without any difficulty.
When would surgery be required for a clavicle fracture?
There are a few types of fractures and certain circumstances in which fractures of the clavicle may need to be treated with surgery. One such reason for operating on a broken clavicle is an "open fracture," where the ends of the bone have come out through the skin. Many times the bones will only poke through the skin at the time of the original injury and then pop back inside once the patient gets up. For this reason, if you have broken your clavicle and you have a cut in the area of the break, you should see a doctor right away. Dirt, grass, and other debris can contaminate open fractures, and a surgery can be required in order to prevent an infection from occurring.
Fractures that occur very near the A/C joint are also a special type of a break. Sometimes these fractures heal so slowly that surgery is often preferred. Surgery is an option for some of these fractures, and your doctor will discuss whether or not you have this type of fracture and may need surgery. Fortunately, this type of a broken clavicle is very rare, occurring less than 10% of the time.
If the fracture does not heal by itself, doctors describe the situation as a "non-union," which means that the bones have not grown back together. When this happens after a clavicle fracture, the patient may experience long lasting pain and discomfort. In this situation, surgery may be offered as a way to realign the ends of the bone and encourage them to heal by holding them there with a plate and screws. Your doctor will be able to discuss the advantages and disadvantages of this type of surgery with you.