A broken collarbone, or fractured clavicle, is a common injury. It usually happens after a fall or a blow to the shoulder.
It takes about six to eight weeks to heal in adults, and three to six weeks in children.
The collarbone, or clavicle, is a long slender bone that runs from the breastbone to each of the shoulders. You should be able to feel it running across the top of your chest, just below your neck. It is connected to the breastbone and shoulder blade via tough bands of tissue called ligaments.
See your GP straight away if you've injured your collarbone. If your GP thinks it's fractured, they'll refer you to hospital for an X-ray to confirm the injury and have it treated with a sling and brace.
If you can't see your GP or if the injury is severe – for example, the bone is poking through the skin or the pain is unbearable – go straight to your nearest hospital accident and emergency (A&E) department.
This page summarises the signs of a broken or cracked collarbone, and explains what you can do while you wait to see the doctor and how this injury is treated.
Signs of a broken collarbone
A cracked or broken collarbone will be extremely painful. There may also be:
- swelling or tenderness around the injured area
- bruising to the skin
- bleeding if the bone has damaged the tissue and skin (this is rare)
- numbness or pins and needles if nerves in the arm are injured
Your shoulder may be slumped downwards and forwards under the weight of the arm, as the broken collarbone is no longer providing support.
You may have heard a snap or a grinding noise during the accident. In very severe cases, one end of the bone may poke through the skin.
What you should do
While you wait to see a doctor, stabilise the arm by using a towel as a sling (this goes under the forearm and then around the neck). Try to move the arm as little as possible.
Take over-the-counter painkillers, such as paracetamol or ibuprofen, to reduce the pain – aspirin shouldn't be given to children aged under 16.
Hold an ice pack to the injured area – try a bag of frozen peas wrapped in a tea towel. This can help reduce pain and swelling. Don't apply ice directly to the skin as it can burn.
How a broken collarbone is treated
Most broken collarbones are left to heal naturally using a simple triangular sling to support the arm and hold the bones together in their normal positions.
The sling is usually applied in hospital after an X-ray has confirmed the collarbone is broken. You'll be given painkillers to relieve the pain.
Surgery under a general anaesthetic is only needed if the injury is severe – for example, the bone has broken through the skin – or if the bones have failed to line up and are overlapping significantly.
Many different techniques have been used to repair the collarbone, but the most common is to fix the break with a plate and screws. If you need surgery to repair your broken collarbone, ask your surgeon to explain which technique they'll be using, and the advantages and disadvantages of this method.
You may need to stay in hospital overnight, depending on the extent of the injury.
Before you're discharged, you may see a physiotherapist, who can show you some gentle arm and shoulder exercises to do at home with your arm out of its sling. These will help reduce stiffness, relieve some of the pain, and build up strength in your shoulder muscles.
You'll probably need to go back to the hospital outpatient department about one week later to make sure your collarbone is healing properly. See your GP if you have any concerns before this appointment.
You should go back to the A&E department if you notice any weakness developing in your arm or hand, or if your pain suddenly becomes worse.
How long does it take to heal?
In adults, it usually takes about six to eight weeks for a broken collarbone to heal, although it can take longer. In children, it usually takes about three to six weeks to heal.
However, it will take at least the same period again to restore full strength to your shoulder.
While the fracture heals, a lump may develop along the collarbone. This is normal and often improves over the following months. Occasionally, the fracture doesn't heal (non-union) and you may need to have surgery. This should be discussed with your surgeon.
You may find the following advice helpful while recovering from a broken collarbone:
- use extra pillows at night to keep yourself more upright if you find sleeping uncomfortable
- use ice packs and painkillers if pain and swelling continues while your arm is in a sling
- try to move your elbow, hand and fingers regularly as soon as it's comfortable to do so
- when you think the fracture has started to heal, try removing the sling for short periods at a time if it's not too painful
- avoid contact sports for at least 10 to 12 weeks after the injury – your doctor will tell you when you can go back to work and resume normal activities
It's important to let your arm hang freely. Avoid resting your arms and elbows on chairs, tables, pillows or inside the sleeves of clothes until you've healed.
Page last reviewed: 14/04/2015
Next review due: 31/03/2017