Growth Plate Fractures: Understanding Risks and Treatment in Children

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Childhood is a time of joy, curiosity, and boundless energy. It's a time when children explore their surroundings, engage in physical activities, and experience the exhilaration of growth. 

However, amidst this journey of development, there are risks that parents and caregivers must be aware of, one of which is growth plate fractures.

In this blog post, we aim to shed light on growth plate fractures, their associated risks, and the various treatment options available. We will explore the common causes of these fractures, discuss the signs and symptoms parents should watch out for, and delve into the importance of timely diagnosis and appropriate medical intervention. 

The Function of Growth Plates

Growth plates, also known as epiphyseal plates, are areas of growing tissue located at the ends of long bones in children and adolescents. It enables bone growth by acting as a bridge between the bone shaft and its end, gradually fusing with the bone's epiphysis. 

This cartilage-rich region contains rapidly dividing cells that are replaced by new bone cells, allowing the bone to lengthen. As children mature, the growth plates close and fully fuse, marking the end of bone lengthening.

What Is a Growth Plate Fracture?

Given its delicate nature, the growth plate is vulnerable to fractures. 

A growth plate fracture refers to a type of injury that occurs in the area of cartilage at the ends of long bones in children and adolescents. 

When a fracture happens in this region, it can disrupt the normal growth process. Growth plate fractures are common in children due to their developing skeletal systems. 

Read More: First Aid For A Broken Arm 

Causes of Growth Plate Fractures

Trauma: Accidents, falls, or direct blows to the affected area can result in growth plate fractures. These can occur during sports, play, or other physical activities.

Repetitive stress: Overuse or repetitive stress on the bones can contribute to growth plate fractures. This is often seen in sports or activities that involve repetitive motions or high-impact movements.

Excessive strain: Certain sports or activities place excessive strain on the bones, increasing the risk of growth plate fractures. This can happen in activities such as gymnastics, weightlifting, or long-distance running.

Age and gender: Younger children with open growth plates are at higher risk, and boys are generally more prone due to their higher participation in physically demanding activities.

Sports and activities: Contact sports like football, basketball, and soccer pose inherent risks due to collisions and direct impacts. Gymnastics, skateboarding, and skiing involve significant forces that can stress the growth plates.

Read More: 10 Fun Winter Activities Kids Can Do Even With A Broken Bone 

Types of Growth Plate Fractures

The Salter-Harris classification system, developed by Dr. Robert Salter and Dr. Robert Harris, is a valuable tool for categorizing and describing different types of growth plate fractures. This widely used system enables healthcare professionals to gain a deeper understanding of the extent and severity of these injuries: 

Type I: This type involves a fracture through the growth plate, with no involvement of the bone shaft or epiphysis. The fracture line runs horizontally, separating the growth plate from the bone.

Type II: In this type, the fracture extends through the growth plate and into the metaphysis, the wider part of the bone shaft. The epiphysis remains unaffected.

Type III: A type III fracture crosses the growth plate and into the epiphysis, the end of the bone. The metaphysis remains intact.

Type IV: This type of fracture occurs through all three regions: the growth plate, metaphysis, and epiphysis. It represents a complex and severe injury.

Type V: This type of fracture involves compression or crushing of the growth plate. The exact fracture pattern may vary, but it generally results in a decreased or halted growth potential.

Symptoms and Signs Associated With Each Type

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The symptoms and signs of growth plate fractures can vary depending on the type. Common indicators include pain, swelling, tenderness, and difficulty using the affected limb. However, specific symptoms associated with each type of growth plate fracture may include the following:

Type I: Minimal displacement and mild symptoms. There may be localized tenderness and swelling near the growth plate.

Type II: Visible deformity, swelling, and pain. The affected limb may appear shorter or angulated compared to the unaffected limb.

Type III: Swelling, pain, and potential joint instability. The affected limb may appear shorter and angulated.

Type IV: Significant pain, swelling, and possible joint deformity. The affected limb may appear visibly deformed or angulated.

Type V: Pain and limited range of motion. The affected limb may have decreased or halted growth compared to the unaffected limb.

It is essential to promptly diagnose and treat growth plate fractures based on their type to prevent potential complications and ensure appropriate management for optimal healing and future bone development.

Diagnosing Growth Plate Fractures 

Early diagnosis of growth plate fractures is crucial to ensure timely and appropriate treatment. Detecting and addressing these injuries promptly can help prevent potential complications, such as limb deformities or growth disturbances. Early intervention also allows healthcare professionals to provide appropriate guidance to promote optimal healing and minimize long-term effects.

Diagnosing Growth Plate Fractures

Clinical Examination: 

To diagnose a growth plate fracture, a doctor will assess the affected area for signs of swelling, warmth, or visible deformity like crookedness or broken skin. The doctor may also conduct a physical examination, asking the child to wiggle their fingers or toes and applying pressure to assess soreness

Imaging Tests:

  • X-rays: Are typically taken to determine the extent of the fracture, including any displacement or movement of the bone.
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scans: Provide detailed images of soft tissues, including the growth plate.
  • Computed Tomography (CT) scans: Offer a cross-sectional view of the injured area for greater detail.

Early diagnosis and intervention are crucial for growth plate fractures in children due to their rapid bone healing. Prompt medical attention at the first signs of a fracture, such as swelling or deformity, allows for timely assessment and appropriate treatment. This helps ensure proper alignment, optimal healing, and minimizes long-term effects on limb development.

How to Treat a Fractured Growth Plate

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The treatment for a fractured growth plate depends on various factors, including the type and severity of the fracture, the age of the child, and the specific bone affected. Generally, treatment options for fractured growth plates can be categorized into non-surgical approaches and surgical interventions.

Non-surgical Approaches

Immobilization and splinting: In cases where the growth plate fracture is stable and well-aligned, immobilization using casts or splints may be sufficient. This helps to keep the affected area still and promotes healing.

Medications for pain management: Over-the-counter pain relievers, such as acetaminophen or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), may be recommended to manage pain and reduce inflammation associated with growth plate fractures.

Surgical Interventions

Internal fixation methods: If the growth plate fracture is unstable, displaced, or involves multiple fragments, surgical intervention may be necessary. Internal fixation techniques, such as pins, screws, or plates, may be used to align and stabilize the fracture fragments, allowing for proper healing.

Growth plate-sparing techniques: In certain cases, when the growth plate is at risk of damage, surgical approaches that aim to preserve the growth plate's integrity may be employed. These techniques aim to minimize disruption to the growth plate while ensuring appropriate alignment and stability of the fracture.

Rehabilitation and Physical Therapy

Following either non-surgical or surgical treatment, rehabilitation, and physical therapy play a crucial role in the recovery process. Physical therapists will develop a customized treatment plan that focuses on restoring the range of motion, strength, and function of the affected limb. This may involve exercises, stretching, and functional activities to gradually regain mobility and promote a safe return to regular activities.

Healing Time for Fractured Growth Plates

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The healing time for a fractured growth plate can vary depending on several factors, including the location and severity of the fracture, the age of the child, and the treatment provided. In general, growth plate fractures may take several weeks to months to heal completely.

Younger children tend to have a greater capacity for healing and may experience faster recovery times compared to older adolescents. The specific bone affected and the type of fracture also play a role in the healing duration. Some growth plate fractures may heal within a few weeks, while more complex fractures may require several months to heal.

Read More: A Parents Guide for When Your Child Breaks Their Wrist

Potential Complications of Growth Plate Fractures

Children's bones have different structures and growth patterns compared to adult bones. Minor changes on X-rays may indicate a growth plate fracture, but they can easily be missed or mistaken for normal development by an inexperienced eye.

It is essential to accurately diagnose and intervene promptly in cases of growth plate fractures, as these injuries can potentially give rise to complications and have long-term effects on a child's overall development. Some of the possible consequences of fractured growth plates include:

  • Growth disturbances: The fracture can disrupt the normal growth, resulting in uneven growth rates between the affected and unaffected limbs.
  • Limb deformities: Improper alignment or healing of the growth plate fracture can lead to angular deformities or rotational abnormalities in the limb.
  • Joint dysfunction: Growth plate injuries can affect the joint's function and range of motion, leading to long-term problems.
  • Impaired limb length and alignment: Growth plate fractures can result in limb length discrepancies or improper limb alignment.
  • Premature Growth Plate Closure: A severe growth plate fracture or can result in premature closure of the growth plate, prematurely halting bone growth and potentially resulting in functional limitations.

Prevention and Safety Tips for Growth Plate Injuries

Warm-up and conditioning: Encourage regular warm-up exercises and conditioning programs to improve strength, flexibility, and endurance, which can help prevent accidents and reduce the severity of injuries.

Safe playing environments: Ensure that play areas are free from hazards such as uneven surfaces, debris, or obstacles. Regularly inspect and maintain equipment to ensure their safety.

Supervision and rules: Provide adequate supervision during activities, particularly for younger children, and enforce safety rules to minimize the risk of accidents.

Sportsmanship and fair play: Foster a culture of sportsmanship, emphasizing respect for rules and opponents, to promote safe and respectful participation in sports.

Read More: Protect Your Cast From the Elements With a Cast Cover

When to Seek Medical Help

When it comes to growth plate fractures, recognizing the signs and seeking medical help in a timely manner is crucial for optimal outcomes. As a parent or caregiver, it's important to be aware of the indicators that warrant medical attention: 

  • Severe pain or tenderness in the injured area
  • Swelling or bruising around the affected joint or bone
  • Visible deformity or inability to move the injured limb
  • Numbness or tingling sensation in the injured area
  • Restricted range of motion or difficulty bearing weight on the affected limb

These signs and symptoms may indicate a growth plate fracture or other significant injury. Trust your instincts as a parent or caregiver and seek medical assistance when in doubt. Early evaluation and proper diagnosis can lead to timely intervention and better outcomes.

Cast21 Orthopedic Alternative to Growth Plate Fractures 

When it comes to little ones with growth plate fractures, we know that comfort is key. That's where Cast21 comes in, flipping the script on traditional medical casting methods. This cool 21st-century solution brings you a lightweight lattice sleeve that molds to fit perfectly around those tiny wrists or arms, offering a strong and oh-so-comfy defense.

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If you're curious to learn more about this innovative orthopedic option for pediatric growth plate fractures, the Cast21 team is ready to assist you. Reach out to us today and take the first step towards a more comfortable and speedy recovery for your child.

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