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Broken Collarbone (Clavicle Fracture)

What Is a Broken Collarbone?

Your collarbone (or clavicle) is the bone that runs horizontally between the top of your breastbone ( ) and shoulder blade (scapula). It helps connect the arm to the body.

You can feel your collarbone by touching the area between your neck and your shoulder. Most people can see it when they look in the mirror.

A broken collarbone, or clavicle fracture, is one of the most common types of broken bones. Most collarbone fractures happen when someone falls onto a shoulder or outstretched hand, putting enough pressure on the collarbone to make it fracture or snap.

Most collarbone fractures heal on their own if the arm is properly immobilized in a sling and the injury is treated with ice and physical therapy. Sometimes, though, a collarbone injury may need surgery when it gets displaced or the break is particularly severe.

What Causes a Broken Collarbone?

Broken collarbones happen in three situations where stress is enough to break the bone:

  1. a person suffers a blow to the shoulder
  2. someone falls onto an outstretched arm
  3. the collarbone is hit directly (as in a collision)

Collarbone fractures are common in contact sports like football, wrestling, rugby, lacrosse, and hockey. They also can happen in sports where there is a chance of falling hard, such as biking, skiing, snowboarding, and skateboarding.

A person's age plays a role in collarbone fractures: When we're young, our bones are still growing and are more at risk injury. Collarbones typically don't harden completely until a person is about 20 years old. That puts people younger than 20 at greater risk of a fracture.

What Are the Signs & Symptoms of a Broken Collarbone?

Signs that someone may have a collarbone fracture include:

  • pain in the affected area
  • trouble moving the arm
  • swelling, tenderness, and bruising along the collarbone
  • increased pain when trying to move the shoulder or arm
  • a grinding or crackling sensation when trying to raise the arm
  • a bulge above the break (in rare cases, the broken end of the bone might even penetrate the skin and be exposed)
  • the shoulder sags down and forward

How Are Broken Collarbones Diagnosed?

Your doctor will first ask how the injury happened and your symptoms, then exmaine your shoulder. The doc may press gently on your collarbone to see if it's tender. This helps the doctor find out where the fracture is and make sure no nerves or blood vessels are damaged. This part of the exam also might include checking the feeling and strength in your arm, hand, and fingers.

If the doctor thinks you have a fracture, he or she will order X-rays of your shoulder and the affected area. X-rays help show the location of the break and how severe it is. X-rays also let doctors see if other bones are broken.

If other bones are broken or if the doctor needs to see the fracture in greater detail, he or she may ask you to get a computerized tomography (CT) scan.

How Are Collarbone Fractures Treated?

Treating a broken collarbone depends on the type of fracture and how severe it is. Most fractures can be treated with simple methods.

Fractures where the bone fragments on each side of the break are severely shifted (displaced fractures) and fractures where the bone is broken into several pieces (comminuted fractures) may require surgery to ensure they heal properly. Compound fractures, where the broken bone pierces the skin, require immediate treatment to reduce the risk of an infection.

For fractures where the bone fragments stay aligned, doctors will recommend:

  • Ice. To help control the pain and swelling of a collarbone fracture, apply ice packs to the affected area for the first 2 to 3 days after the injury. Don't put ice directly against the skin ― wrap it in a towel or other fabric.
  • Arm support. Keep your arm immobilized by using a sling or wrap. This keeps the bone in position as it heals and helps to control pain.
  • Medicine. Talk with your doctor about what sort of medicines (ibuprofen, acetaminophen) can help ease pain.
  • Physical therapy. You may lose muscle strength and range of motion in your shoulder while it is immobilized. When the bones start to heal, begin gentle motion exercises to reduce stiffness while you're wearing the sling (your doctor or a physical therapist can show you some). When the bone is healed completely, your doctor may recommend a more strenuous rehabilitation program so you regain strength and flexibility in your shoulder.

A severely displaced, compound may require surgery to realign the bone fragments and hold them in place while the bone heals. This is typically done by inserting special screws into the bone or by attaching metal plates to the outer surface of the bone. In general, the screws and plates will not be removed once the bone has healed unless they're causing irritation.Illustration: Comminuted fracture

After surgery, doctors will often prescribe a therapy regimen to help a patient regain movement and strength in the shoulder. Therapy starts with gentle motion exercises, and strengthening exercises will be added as the bone heals.

For teens, it usually takes around 6 to 8 weeks for a broken collarbone to heal. Some will take longer.

During this time, it's important to take it easy so the bone doesn't get re-injured. Keep in touch with your doctor during the healing process so you know when it's OK to go back to normal activities.

Can Broken Collarbones Be Prevented?

Because collarbone fractures happen suddenly and unexpectedly, it can be hard to prevent them. But you can take a few precautions to decrease your risk:

  • When playing contact sports, wear all the recommended protective gear and learn the proper techniques for your sport.
  • Keep your bones strong by eating a well-balanced diet. Be sure to eat lots of vegetables and foods that are rich in calcium and vitamin D to help build strong bones.
  • Do strength training and stretching to build strong, flexible muscles. Muscles that are strong and flexible will help support your bones better and keep you agile and less likely to experience a hard fall. A proper warm-up, including dynamic stretching exercises, can help your muscles perform at their best during play.
  • Wear well-fitting, supportive footwear that's right for your sport.
Date reviewed: September 2014