Ever since Sir Isaac Newton figured out why apples fall down and not up, we've known the hard truths about gravity--and one of the hardest is that when you hit the ground, you can break a bone. With 206 bones in the human body, there's a lot of potential for breakage.
If you're on the mend from a fracture, there are some ways you can speed healing and make yourself more comfortable.
Butt out. Smoking can delay the healing of bones--up to five months longer for serious fractures and less for minor breaks, says orthopedic surgeon George Cierny III, M.D., of Atlanta. He has shown experimentally that nicotine and other substances in cigarette smoke reduce the amount of oxygen reaching bone tissue, causing the delay in healing. So if you're a smoker, expect a longer-than- average healing time.
Watch what you drink. It's still unknown what effect alcohol and caffeine have on healing, but researchers know that people who consume beverages containing these two substances are more likely to endure fractures. That's because caffeine and alcohol affect bone mass and interfere with calcium absorption, which builds stronger bones.
"In our study, there was an increased risk of getting fractures in those who drank more than four cups of coffee daily or about two glasses of alcohol--wine, beer or a highball," says Graham A. Colditz, M.D., a researcher at Harvard Medical School in Boston.
When to See the Doctor
The most important thing you should know about broken bones is that they require immediate medical attention. If you even suspect a fracture, have a doctor check it out. Otherwise, you may further damage the broken bone. There's also risk of infection and delayed healing.
Use Gravity to Stop Itchy Casts
Bothered by that annoying itch from inside a cast? Don't try to scratch it with a ruler, clothes hanger or other device--you' ll just get more itching from the tiny cuts caused by your scratching.
"Instead, simply elevate the fractured area so that it's above the level of your heart," suggests Philip Sanfilippo, D.P.M., a San Francisco podiatrist who specializes in sports injuries and treatment. "By doing that, you'll diminish blood flow to the area and reduce swelling. Often that's enough to relieve the itching."
RICE is nice. On the first-aid front, most experts suggest some big chill-even after your doctor has treated you. The acronym RICE--rest, ice, compression and elevation-describes the best way to hasten healing and prevent further damage. If you have a minor fracture that's protected by an air cast or soft cast, your doctor might let you remove the cast now and then to apply ice directly.
"Put a bag of frozen vegetables on the fracture for about 20 minutes, then remove it for 10," suggests Steven Subotnick, D.P.M., a sports podiatrist in Hayward, California, and author of Sports and Exercise Injuries. "But make sure you put a washcloth between your skin and the ice bag to prevent an ice burn." Since you want to avoid pressure on the area, the cold compress should be applied lightly.
Even if you can't take off a soft cast, you can apply ice to the outside of the cast, and it will help chill the area underneath.