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Broken collarbone

Introduction

A broken collarbone usually happens after a fall onto the shoulder. It takes about six to eight weeks to heal in adults and three to four 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. The collarbone is connected to the breastbone and to the shoulder blade via tough bands of tissue called ligaments.

If you think you've injured your collarbone, or you think your child has, see your GP straight away. They may be able to tell whether the bone is fractured (broken or cracked) just by feeling it. If your GP thinks it is fractured, they will refer you to hospital for an X-ray to confirm the injury and to have it treated with a sling and brace. 

If you can't see your GP or if the injury is severe (e.g. 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 (however, this is rare)

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, you can stabilise the arm by using a towel as a sling (this goes under the arm and then around the neck). Try to move the arm as little as possible.

Take over-the-counter painkilllers, such as paracetamol or ibuprofen, to reduce the pain (note that 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 to reduce pain and swelling.

If your child has injured their collarbone, try and get someone else to drive so that you can support and comfort your child, who may feel very distressed.

How a broken collarbone is treated

Most broken collarbones are left to heal naturally, using just a sling and brace to support the arm and hold the bones together in their normal positions.

The sling and brace are usually applied in hospital, after an X-ray has confirmed that 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 (e.g. the bone has broken through the skin) or if the bones have failed to line up in a brace 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 will be using, and the advantages and disadvantages of this method.

Being discharged

You may need to stay in hospital overnight, depending on the extent of the injury.

Before you're discharged, you'll be seen by a physiotherapist, who will show you some gentle arm and shoulder exercises to do at home with your arm out of its sling. These will help to reduce stiffness, relieve some of the pain and build up strength in your shoulder muscles.

Follow-up

You're likely to be asked to go back to the hospital outpatient department about one week later, to check that the collarbone is healing properly.

Recovering from a broken collarbone

In adults, it takes about six to eight weeks for a broken collarbone to heal. In children it's just three to four weeks.

However, it will take at least the same period again to restore full strength to your shoulder.

Avoid contact sports for at least 10-12 weeks after the injury. Your doctor will tell you when you can go back to work and resume normal activities.

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