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Why An Old Bone Break Can Cause Pain - And What To Do About It

Posted on June 24, 2024 by Elizabeth Swanson

You broke a bone, recovered and thought it healed – but now it’s hurting again. If this has happened to you, it’s likely not in your head. “While relatively uncommon, it is possible for an old bone break to cause pain,” says Lindsay Maier, M.D., an orthopedic trauma surgeon at Henry Ford Health. “It’s more likely to occur within the first year and a half after a break – but it could also happen several years later. People often describe it as an achiness or a sharp shooting pain.” 

Dr. Maier says there are a few reasons why an old bone break could cause pain:

  • The fracture didn’t fully heal – or it didn’t heal in the proper position.
  • Your muscles weakened after surgery. 
  • Part of an old implant broke.   
  • An underlying infection developed in or around the old break. Even years down the road, Dr. Maier says an infection can develop, especially if a surgery was required to fix the break. This could especially be the case if your pain is accompanied by drainage, redness, a fever or chills.
  • Weather changes. While it’s not exactly known why this occurs, it’s likely due to changes in barometric pressure, temperature and humidity.  

When To Care For Pain At Home – And When To See A Doctor

If your pain is caused by weather changes, it’s likely short-term and Dr. Maier recommends managing symptoms with rest and over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medication, like ibuprofen. Maintaining a regular exercise schedule can also help.  

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But if the pain isn’t due to seasonal changes – if you have consistent pain that’s not improving with rest and over-the-counter pain relievers – don’t wait to see a doctor. 

“We’ll start with a physical examination and X-rays to ensure the area has healed appropriately,” says Dr. Maier. “We might also draw labs to look for markers of infection.”

If a superficial infection of the skin is found, you’ll likely be prescribed an oral antibiotic. If the infection is deeper, surgery may be required to remove any orthopedic implants that were previously placed. Intravenous (IV) antibiotics are often needed after surgery to help clear the infection. 

Surgery may also be necessary if the bone healed in an incorrect position – or if it never fully healed. This often entails realigning the bone and/or placing bone graft (using transplanted bone to repair the break). In certain circumstances, Dr. Maier says an at-home device called a bone stimulator may be prescribed. It promotes bone healing by sending pulses to activate cells near the break.   

But if everything has healed appropriately and an infection is ruled out, the pain could be due to muscle weakness, in which case physical therapy may be prescribed to strengthen muscles around the break. 

And to help prevent an old bone break from causing issues in the first place? 

“Once you receive the okay from your orthopedic doctor, it’s important to maintain an active lifestyle. Strengthening your muscles promotes stronger, more dense bones,” says Dr. Maier. “You should also eat a healthy, well-balanced diet and consider talking to your doctor about taking supplements like calcium and vitamin D to promote bone health.” 

Reviewed by Lindsay Maier, M.D., an orthopedic trauma surgeon who sees patients at Henry Ford Hospital and Henry Ford Macomb Health Center – Washington Township. 

Categories : MoveWell

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