A broken collarbone, or fractured clavicle, is a common injury that usually happens after a fall onto the shoulder.
It takes about six to eight weeks to heal in adults and three to six 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 doctor straight away. They may be able to tell whether the bone is fractured (broken or cracked) just by feeling it. An X-ray is needed to confirm the injury.
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
Try to move the arm as little as possible.
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. Do not apply ice directly to the skin, as it can burn.
How a broken collarbone is treated
Most broken collarbones are left to heal naturally, using a simple triangular sling to support the arm and hold the bones together in their normal positions.
The sling is 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 (for example, the bone has broken through the skin) or if the bones have failed to line up 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.
You may need to stay in hospital overnight, depending on the extent of the injury.
Before you’re discharged, you may see a physiotherapist, who can 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.
You’re likely to be asked to go back to the doctor about one week later, to check that the collarbone is healing properly.
How long does it take to heal?
In adults, it usually takes about six to eight weeks for a broken collarbone to heal, although it can take longer. In children it usually takes about three to six weeks to heal.
However, it will take at least the same period again to restore full strength to your shoulder.
While the fracture heals, a lump may develop along the collarbone. This is normal and it will often improve over the following months.