In serious accidents, some people suffer orthopedic trauma and related injuries. These types of injuries cause damage to the skeletal or muscular system because of the sudden application of external force. Orthopedic injuries are commonly caused by blunt force trauma in falls, car accidents, motorcycle accidents, truck accidents, pedestrian accidents, bicycle accidents, and can also occur while playing sports.
While a trauma-related orthopedic injury might not always be life-threatening, it can still have the potential to change your life. Whenever you have suffered orthopedic injuries in any type of accident, you must seek immediate medical attention. If your doctor or your hospital’s emergency department diagnoses you with orthopedic injuries, you might be referred to an orthopedic trauma doctor. Here is some information about orthopedic trauma, the common types of injuries that can result, and when you should see an orthopedic doctor.
What Is Orthopedic Trauma?
Orthopedic trauma includes any type of severe injury to the joints, bones, or soft tissue that is caused by an external force or blow. In many cases, orthopedic trauma is caused by a sudden blow in a motor vehicle accident or fall. However, people can also sometimes suffer orthopedic trauma because of overuse. For example, marathon runners sometimes develop stress fractures in the tibia, which is a bone in the lower leg.
Orthopedic trauma is broadly defined because it includes a range of injuries, including simple fractures to severe, life-threatening injuries. Orthopedic surgeons work to restore the injured body parts to full functioning as quickly as possible through a range of treatments, depending on the type and severity of the injuries.
Basics of Traumatic Orthopedic Injuries
Traumatic orthopedic injuries typically require immediate medical and surgical intervention to facilitate proper healing. These types of injuries are often caused by accidents and can include damage to the following body parts:
Orthopedic trauma medicine primarily focuses on bone fractures, but orthopedic surgeons might also treat other injuries of the musculoskeletal system. Orthopedic surgery is used to try to return joints and bones to their proper alignment and positions and to restore their ability to move correctly.
Orthopedic surgeons have specialized training in treating traumatic injuries and treat fractures ranging from minor hairline fractures to complex fractures of all types. They also treat bones that have not healed properly after a previous injury or from complications that have occurred during an earlier surgery. In cases in which bones have not healed even after being set, which is called a non-union, the patients might need additional surgery or another type of treatment to fix the issue and restore function.
When bones or joints are set in an improper position, it is called a malunion. Malunions can cause visible deformities, swelling, and reduced mobility. When a malunion occurs, an orthopedic surgeon might need to separate the set joint or bone and reset it to correct the issue.
Common Causes of Orthopedic Trauma
The most common causes of orthopedic trauma include the following:
- Car accidents
- Truck accidents
- Motorcycle accidents
- Bicycle accidents
- Pedestrian accidents
- Physical violence
- Sports injuries, especially while playing football, basketball, or hockey
- Natural disasters
Risk Factors Increasing the Chance of Orthopedic Injuries
Certain people are likelier to suffer orthopedic injuries. For example, older adults might have lower bone density because of osteoporosis. When an older adult with osteoporosis is involved in an accident, he or she is likelier to suffer a fracture than a younger adult. Other conditions that can also increase the risk of orthopedic injuries caused by trauma include cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, and osteogenesis imperfecta. Some of the other risk factors for orthopedic trauma include the following:
- Heavy drinking
- Poor nutrition
- Steroid use
- Previous fractures
Women are also likelier to suffer fractures than men since their bones are generally less dense and smaller. Fractures that are caused by diseases are referred to as pathological fractures.
When Should You See an Orthopedic Trauma Physician?
Some orthopedic injuries will be immediately apparent and visible. If you have a severe orthopedic injury such as a bone protruding through your skin, you will need to go to the emergency department immediately. Once you are there, an orthopedic surgeon will start immediately working to repair your injury.
In other cases, orthopedic trauma will be less severe but will still require specialized treatment. Some of the most common types of injuries that should be treated by an orthopedic specialist include the following:
- Closed fractures
- Open fractures
- Dislocated joints
- Stress fractures
- Injuries caused by overuse
While some of these types of injuries might be treated by your primary care physician, it is still a good idea to see an orthopedic specialist if you have suffered orthopedic trauma. Orthopedic doctors have advanced education and training in treating musculoskeletal disorders and injuries. If you need specialized care, your primary care doctor will likely refer you to an orthopedic specialist.
Treatment of Orthopedic Trauma
Orthopedic trauma that causes severe injuries, including fractures or serious soft tissue injuries, will necessitate an immediate trip to the emergency department. If you are involved in a car wreck, call 911 and summon help. Emergency responders can immobilize the part of your body that has been injured to prevent additional damage before you are seen by a doctor. After you arrive at the emergency department, your injuries will be assessed, and the doctors will determine the best treatment strategy to use.
Some types of orthopedic injuries can be life-threatening. For example, open fractures can result in infections, and broken bones can puncture organs or tear blood vessels. These types of injuries will require both a trauma surgeon and other specialists to quickly treat each damaged body part and increase the chances that a patient will fully recover.
In other situations, you might not immediately be aware that you have suffered a fracture. This might happen if you sustain a fracture because of overuse or while playing sports. If you experience worsening pain in an area of your body while you engage in physical activity, you should see an orthopedic doctor for diagnostic imaging tests to see whether you have a fracture. Other symptoms that you might experience that should prompt a visit to the doctor include the following:
- Painful bruising
- Cracking or popping sensation after trauma or strenuous activity
- Severe swelling
- Sudden, intense pain during activity that continues after rest
- Visible deformity
If you have osteoporosis, diabetes, or another risk factor for fractures, you should go to the doctor whenever you experience these types of symptoms or pain following trauma.
Treatment of Orthopedic Trauma
Orthopedic surgeons work in private practice and in hospitals to diagnose and treat musculoskeletal injuries. When you go to the emergency department, a general trauma surgeon will first be responsible for stabilizing you. Orthopedic surgeons are on call to address trauma to the joints, bones, and soft tissues.
Orthopedic surgeons only recommend surgical interventions when they are necessary. The types of treatment you might receive will depend on the type and severity of your injuries.
Some of the types of treatment that might be used include the following:
- Rest, ice, compression, and elevation for strains and sprains
- Medication to relieve pain
- Splints to immobilize broken bones
- Braces to support injured bones
- Plaster casts to support and immobilize a fractured bone
- Surgery to address serious complex fractures and severe soft tissue injuries
- Physical therapy to restore functioning and mobility
- Rehabilitative care following serious orthopedic trauma
Steps to Prevent Orthopedic Trauma
While it is not always possible to prevent accidents and potential trauma, there are some steps you can take to reduce your risk of suffering traumatic injuries. Whenever you ride in a vehicle, make sure to wear your seatbelt at all times. If you ride a bicycle, you should wear a helmet, wrist guards, and other safety gear. You should also wear proper safety gear when you play sports. Before you work out, make sure to stretch and warm up to prevent injuries to your muscles.
If you have a higher risk of injury because of an underlying medical condition, you should speak to your doctor about other things you can do to reduce your risk of fractures. You should wear low-heeled, comfortable shoes with good tread to avoid slipping and falling. Your doctor might also recommend that you use an assistive device while walking if you have mobility issues, including a cane or walker. Your doctor might also recommend lifestyle changes, including smoking cessation, better nutrition, and a reduction of how much alcohol you drink.
Orthopedic trauma can range in severity. If you have been involved in a car accident and have suffered orthopedic injuries, one of the first things you should do is to seek immediate medical attention. With prompt and appropriate treatment, your chances of fully recovering from your injuries will increase.