How do I know if I've broken a bone?

Broken bones can happen after an accident such as a fall, or by being hit by an object. The three most common signs of a fracture are:

  • pain
  • swelling
  • deformity

However, it can sometimes be difficult to tell whether a bone is broken if it is not displaced.

If you have broken a bone, you may experience the following:

  • you may hear or feel a snap or a grinding noise as the injury happens 
  • there may be swelling, bruising or tenderness around the injured area
  • you may feel pain when you put weight on the injury, touch it, press it or move it
  • the injured part may look deformed – in severe breaks, the broken bone may be poking through the skin

In addition, as a result of the shock of breaking a bone, you may feel faint, dizzy or sick.

If the break is small or it is just a crack (fracture), you may not feel much pain or even realise that you have broken a bone.

But if you think that you have broken or fractured a bone, you should seek medical help as soon as possible. Go to your nearest accident and emergency (A&E) department for a broken arm or leg. If you think you may have broken your toe or finger you can go to a minor injury unit or urgent care centre.

The broken bone must be properly aligned and held in place (often with a plaster cast) so that it heals in the correct position. If you do not receive the correct treatment, you could develop a serious infection or a permanent deformity. You may also develop long-term problems with your joints.

It's important not to eat or drink anything if you think you've broken a bone, as you may need a general anaesthetic (be put to sleep) to allow doctors to realign it.

Older people and those who have osteoporosis should be particularly careful, because their bones are weaker and may break more easily.

If you have broken or fractured a bone, visit your GP or local walk-in centre. However, if the break is serious, go to your nearest accident and emergency (A&E) department.

Further information:

Page last reviewed: 18/02/2015

Next review due: 31/03/2017