Author Question: Medical Complications for Badly Broken Leg 1/2

Mareike Asks:

Greetings from Germany!

The character in question has several injuries, the most important of which is a severely broken leg (I’m talking cast all the way up to the hip). He got these injuries by being attacked and beaten up.

knee-1406964_1920I’m thinking open or compound fracture because then I can have him develop a bone infection. What I’m wondering is the order of things and how long it would take to develop what and how to recover, how long it takes, and so on.

I want him to either develop compartment syndrome and/or the above mentioned bone infection. From my understanding of the sources I’ve read, an infection can result from the treatment of the compartment syndrome, but not vice versa, so it would make sense to have that order, right? Those two are the main life/health threatening complications I could find while researching.

My ultimate goal is to write a story of recovery. Of the hardship, the struggle and pain, the setbacks. The physical therapy, the fear of whether or not he can go back to his old job.

Any resources you could point me towards when it comes to recovering from a very nasty break that might or might not require amputation or might lead to a disability would be greatly appreciated.

Jordyn Says:

Greetings from the USA! I’m going to give some thoughts on your question. I also consulted with a physical therapist since a large portion of your question deals with recovery and we rarely know what happens to patients in the long run.

I’ll give Tim’s thoughts on PT next post.

One thing I want to make clear is that treatment in the US is going to differ from medical treatment in Germany. If your novel is specific to Germany, then you really should run these thoughts by a medical person in your country. Some things should be similar, but some may also vary widely (like treatment of the actual fracture— use of fixators versus casting, etc.)

My first thought is it is really hard to get an open fracture of the leg from a beating. It’s not impossible, for sure, but we normally see injuries like this from mechanisms with a lot of velocity behind them— car accidents would be one example. So, sadly for your character, for this to ring medically true, I would probably add a weapon of some sort— like a metal pipe. And it’s more likely from repeated hits than just “one lucky” one.

The other thing is to understand the difference between compartment syndrome and the bone infection you mention which is called osteomyelitis. Compartment syndrome is a condition of swelling leading to a lack of blood supply. When you injure your body, it responds by swelling. Think of a sprained ankle.

Sometimes, this swelling can become so severe that is compresses on the blood vessels inside the extremity and either diminishes blood flow or cuts it off completely. This can be from just the injury, a cast or splint that is applied too tightly, or swelling after a cast was placed correctly.

Things begin to die when they don’t have blood supply. To alleviate the pressure, a fasciotomy is often done, which is a long cut through the skin and underlying tissue. It is a deep cut. If you Google pictures of a fasciotomy you’ll quickly get the idea. Not for the faint of heart. After this type of procedure, you have an open wound. Open wounds are always at risk for infection, but it doesn’t necessarily mean the bone would get infected.

Osteomyelitis is an infection of the bone. An open fracture (where the bone punches through the skin) can place a patient at risk for this type of infection. The dirtier the wound the more apt for infection. Wound infection does not develop immediately. Usually it takes 48-72 hours (24 hr at a minimum). Antibiotic therapy for osteomyelitis is extensive lasting 4-6 weeks. You can read an overview here.

Also, here is a link that deals with treatment of compartment syndrome.

With these injuries, coupled with the  added complications of compartment syndrome, fasciotomy, and/or osteomyelitis (or some other infection), your character is looking at 2-4 weeks in the hospital. He would likely go home on oral antibiotic therapy for his bone infection.

He’ll also need extensive rehab which Tim will highlight next post.

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