Basic Facts

What are Fractures?

A bone fracture is either a complete break or an incomplete cracking of a bone. Fractures happen when the bone is subjected to a force that is too strong for the bone to withstand. If the bone is already weakened, it does not take much force to cause a fracture.  For example, bones can be weakened by osteoporosis (loss of bone mass), arthritis, or cancer.  In older people, one in five falls causes a serious injury such as fractures or a head injury. Fractures in older people may lead to: 

  • Reduced mobility, independence, and ability to carry out daily functions
  • Moving into long-term care
  • Chronic pain
  • Worse quality of life
  • Higher risk of death

The Most Common Types of Fractures

There are several types of fractures:

  • Simple (closed). The broken bone stays within your skin.
  • Compound (open). The broken bone tears through skin.
  • Incomplete (greenstick or hairline). The crack in the bone does not go all the way through the width of the bone.
  • Complete. The bone breaks all the way across. 

Healthcare professionals also have terms for the pattern of a fracture (for example, linear or spiral fractures). If the bones are still in their proper places, the fracture is called a non-displaced break. 

Fragility Fractures

If you break a bone from a very small impact—for example while carrying out normal daily activities or from a small fall—the break is called a fragility fracture. This type of break would not occur in a healthy younger person. 

Older adults are most likely to suffer fractures of the:

  • Hip
  • Pelvis
  • Wrist or arm
  • Bones in the spine or backbone (vertebrae)
  • Leg or ankle
  • Hand
  • Ribs 

How Common are Fractures?

Fractures happen more easily as you get older. If you are over 85, your chance of breaking a bone is four times higher than if you are between the ages of 65 and 75.  More than 1.5 million people in the US yearly have fractures related to osteoporosis, a disease of low bone density. 

In the US, 250,000 to 500,000 women break a hip or spinal bone every year—90% of the time from a fall. About half of women over the age of 85 fall every year. 

Osteoporosis affects people of all ethnic backgrounds. The risk of fractures is higher in white women than any other race.  Almost half of white women over the age of 50 will fracture their hip, spine, or wrist at some point. Only 13% of white men will have such a fracture, but their risk of death after fracture is higher than that for women. The risk for non-white races is lower for all types of fractures. 

In general, the risk of death is about 20% in the year after a hip fracture.  While most older adults suffering a fracture can return to their previous level of activity, they may also experience some limitations. Up to half of these patients will continue to need an assistive device such as a walker or a cane.  


Last Updated January 2017