Broken collarbone (clavicle fracture): Symptoms, complications, and recovery tips

The collarbone (clavicle) is one of the main bones in the shoulder. It’s a long slender bone that runs from the breastbone to each of the shoulders connected via ligaments, and it is a common location for injuries to occur, resulting in a fracture.

Collarbone (Clavicle) fractures account for approximately 5 percent of all adult fractures and are usually due to a fall onto the shoulder or an outstretched hand that puts enough pressure on the bond to snap or break it. The resulting fracture can be extremely painful, making it difficult to move the arm on the affected side.

What does a broken collarbone (clavicle fracture) feel like?

While everyone experiences pain differently, a fracture to the collarbone (clavicle) will most likely cause a sudden sharp, stabbing pain. Initially, when the bone actually breaks, you may hear a pop or click sound that can also be felt. When the arm on the affected side is moved, a grinding or clicking may be felt, with pain steadily increasing the further the arm is moved away from the body. After the initial pain, the area of the fracture will likely produce a dull, constant ache that is made worse when the arm is moved or touched.

Broken collarbone (clavicle fracture) signs and symptoms

It will be very apparent if you have broken your collarbone, and at the very least, you will have some idea that something is wrong. The area with the cracked or broken bone underneath will be very painful, with the following signs also likely being present in that area:

  • Swelling or tenderness
  • Bruising of the skin
  • Bleeding if the bone has pierced the skin (rarely occurs)
  • Numbness or the feeling of pins and needles (if a nerve is injured)

You may also experience the affected side appearing slumped downward and forward under the weight of the arm, as the collarbone is no longer supporting the rest of the arm.

What causes a broken collarbone (clavicle fracture)?

Most collarbone fractures occur during a brief moment of direct forceful contact to the shoulder. This can happen during a fall on the shoulder or a car collision. Falling on an outstretched arm can also cause a collarbone fracture and is a common cause seen in the elderly population. Sports that can cause contact between players are also a likely source for a fracture.

Broken collarbone (clavicle fracture): Complications and risk factors

The collarbone doesn’t harden completely until about 20 years old, putting children and teenagers at risk. This risk starts to increase again when people reach more advanced ages. Having a broken bone is usually bad enough, but sometimes complication can subsequently occur, making the process of recovery more difficult. While most broken collarbones heal without difficulty, some may result in the following:

  • Nerve or blood vessel injury: Jagged ends of a broken collarbone (clavicle fracture) may injure nearby nerves and blood vessels. If you happen to experience coldness or numbness in your arm or hand, seek medical attention immediately.
  • Poor or delayed healing: More severe cases of broken collarbone (clavicle fracture) symptoms may result in slow or incomplete healing. Poor union of the bones during this process may also occur, resulting in cosmetic deformity or shortening of the bone.
  • A bony lump: This occurs due to the healing process, and is appreciated at the site of the union of the two bones forming a lump. It can usually be seen easily as it is close to the skin. Some lumps will disappear over time, but other by stay permanently.
  • Osteoarthritis: A fracture involving the joints that connect the collarbone to your shoulder blade or your breastbone may increase your risk for eventually developing arthritis in that joint

How long does a broken collarbone (clavicle fracture) take to heal?

The healing process is dependent on age. In adults, it usually takes about six to eight weeks for a broken collarbone to heal, while in children it may take only three to six weeks. Regenerative cells are much more abundant and active when you are younger, making healing times much shorter.

Regaining shoulder strength may take the same period of time, however, in both children and adults.

How is a broken collarbone (clavicle fracture) treated?

Initially, when first seeing a doctor or medical professional for a potentially broken collarbone (clavicle fracture), they will first examine it and determine how it occurred. Then the most likely next course of action will be to get some images, most likely X-rays, of the clavicular bone and surrounding bones and joints to rule out any collateral damage. The doctor will likely next prescribe a form of treatment they feel is suitable for your particular situation. The following are treatments for a fractured collarbone:

Nonsurgical treatment – these are suitable if broken bones have not shifted out of place.

  • Arm support: A simple arm sling used for comfort immediately after the break and to keep the arm and shoulder in position while the injury heals.
  • Medication: Pain medication, including acetaminophen, help to relieve pain associated with the fracture
  • Physical therapy: It is important to maintain arm motion to prevent stiffness, even though there may be pain. Often, patients will begin doing exercise for elbow motion immediately after the injury. It is common to lose shoulder and arm strength after a collarbone injury, but as the bone heals, pain will start to subside. More strenuous exercise will be started gradually once the fractures have fully healed.

Surgical treatment – for broken bones that have significantly shifted out of place.

Open reduction and internal fixation: The procedure used most often to treat clavicle fractures. Here, bone fragments are first repositioned (reduced) into their normal alignment, with the bone pieces then held in place (fixation) with metal hardware. Typical hardware used for broken collarbone surgery includes plates and screws, or pins and screws.

When should I see a doctor?

If you suspect you may have broken your collarbone or suspect someone else has (maybe during a fall or sporting accident), seeing a doctor should be a high priority. A doctor will assess the area and give reliable information on how to proceed.

Going to the emergency department is recommended for anyone with a broken collarbone when these following conditions exist:

  • Other injuries suspected
  • Bone piercing through skin
  • Numbness, tingling, discoloration, or pain in the arm
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Rapid swelling
  • Severe pain

Broken collarbone (clavicle fracture) recovery and prevention tips

Once a broken collarbone is diagnosed and treated, patients are recommended to see their doctor or health care professional in about one week to check on the healing process and to identify any complications. Patients are instructed to avoid contact sports for at least six weeks following the injury, with the possibility of requiring some additional time to return to “normal” activities. The following advice may be helpful during broken collarbone recovery:

  • Use an extra pillow at night to keep yourself upright
  • Use ice packs or painkillers if pain and swelling continues
  • Move your elbow, hand, and fingers regularly when it is comfortable to do so
  • When the fracture has started to heal, try removing the sling for short periods at time if comfortable

Preventing a collarbone fracture can be difficult as they can occur at any time. But there are things you can do to at the very least to decrease your chance of becoming a victim. Always wear proper safety equipment during sports, especially for high contact activity like hockey, lacrosse, and football.

If you are unlucky enough to get this injury, as long as you act smart and address it right away by seeking out the help of a medical professional, they will teach you how to heal a broken collarbone in the best way possible, making your recovery will be relatively smooth experience.

Related: Shoulder blade (scapula) pain causes, symptoms, treatments, and exercises


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