Interviewer: Travis Nolan is an athletic trainer that works for the University of Utah Health Orthopedic Center and also works with high school athletes here in the valley. And the question today is if an athlete gets a fracture, should you always go get that x-rayed? Now, I threw on a trick word there, Travis. I said "always," right?
Travis: Yes, yeah, yeah.
Interviewer: So maybe not always. But first of all, you were saying that you've got stories of people who got a fracture, didn't get it x-rayed, didn't get it taken care of, and then it really impacted them later in their life. Give me an example of how that might happen.
Travis: I ended up coming in over this summer just to do some check-up on the school I work at and things like that, and this athlete pops in my room. And he wasn't really thinking about it much. He was doing some lifting and just experiencing some slight pain in his wrist. And he's like, "Hey, man. Is this normal? I took a little follow-on a couple of weeks ago." He actually did ended up going to see somebody. He was instructed to come back in if it wasn't getting better, and the athlete didn't do that. And so after evaluating it, I was pretty concerned for a fracture still present in his wrist.
And so we sent him back in. And I guess, long story short, since that second referral, getting him back into a doctor again, he has actually had four different surgeries on his wrist trying to restore normal function and trying to properly heal the bone that broke. And so he ended up breaking his scaphoid bone. And for those that have broken it or know about that bone, I'm sure they know the complications that can come from breaking that bone, and then it not healing properly because that bone can lose blood supply. And when that happens, it's called necrosis. And so part of that bone can sort of die off. He, to this day, still has trouble playing athletics. It has affected him in class, in school, writing, typing, so many aspects of his life, carrying things, lifting a backpack. And so he is definitely one of my big advocates when I have to tell other athletes to go get an x-ray, and he'll back me on that a lot of the time, so yeah.
Common Fractures that Need Immediate Medical Care
Interviewer: So, for young high school athletes, are there some fractures that tend to occur more often that if it does occur, that is definitely a reason you want to go see somebody, ask for an x-ray? What are those kind of common fractures that could really give you problems down the road if you don't take care of them almost immediately?
Travis: Yeah, the ankle. So whether or not it's from twisting your ankle, getting it caught up in a pile, or if you're a basketball athlete, very common to come down on top of somebody's foot after you jump up into the air, and then any kind of fracture around the ankle bone. So whether it's a small chip off your tibia or fibula, those are sort of common when it comes to spraining your ankle. And most of the time, why doctors recommend x-rays for ankle sprain is because you can get . . . whether it's a small piece of your ligament sort of pulls off a little piece of bone, that's a common area to fracture as well.
The other area of the body that is another big one to go get checked out is called the base of your fifth metatarsal. So that's on the outside of your foot there. And that's a special bone because it's sort of just like the one on our wrist where if we don't catch it in time, it can also go through that sort of necrosis. And it's called a dancer's fracture, actually, because it happens in dance quite frequently. And so that's one of those areas where if you do have pain on the outside of your foot sort of near the . . . we call it the base of our fifth metatarsal. If you have pain in that location, that's a very important one to go get evaluated and x-rayed because it can go through that necrosis process.
And then also, they actually are seen quite often in the military. They're called marcher's fracture. So it's at second or third metatarsal in your foot, and that's the same thing. It's going to be those repetitive stress motions. So whether it's marching, running, jumping, that's another very common area in athletics or the sports world to see a fracture in.
Interviewer: So I noticed that these common fractures in athletics that you believe should be x-rayed seem to be around the wrists, ankles, and the feet, the smaller bone.
Interviewer: Yeah. So those are the ones that if you don't get them looked at, x-rayed, follow your doctor's instructions can really kind of mess things up in the future for you not only in athletics, but in regular life as well. And I'd imagine a lot of those you don't even know that there's a fracture. You probably . . . just pain. You thought maybe just strained something or sprained something. Is that accurate?
Travis: When athletes have a bigger emotional response, it's pretty easy to convince someone, like, "Hey, we should go get an x-ray on this," like, "You're in a lot of pain right now." It's more time those athletes that they're able to tolerate it. They're sort of pushing through it, they're playing with it still, or they come in and they're, like, "Dude, this is something I can deal with." And you have to have that conversation and you have to educate them on, "Hey, look. It's not about you missing a couple of games." This is about your long-term health, especially for those important areas, whether it's the scaphoid, the base of the fifth. There are some areas in your body where if you don't get them checked out and treated properly, they will cause long-term complications. You will have to get multiple surgeries on them in order to try restore normal function in your body.
Interviewer: And if the athlete is experiencing that, how much time do they have to go get the x-ray? Now, I know at University of Utah Health, we have a walk-in orthopedic center, which is great because you could just walk in, tell somebody what's going on, and they could do an x-ray right there. If they need to have a couple of days in order to arrange that, did you have a couple of days to do that or you really want to get it checked sooner than later?
Travis: Yeah. So can you wait overnight? Sure. Should you wait the entire weekend and then maybe go get it checked out on Monday? Those are some things that I probably wouldn't recommend unless you've been advised and it's already been evaluated by somebody, but make sure you're getting evaluated by a professional that can give you recommendations on, "Hey, this is one of those high-risk areas and this is why I would go get an x-ray tonight instead of waiting over the weekend."
updated: December 8, 2022
originally published: March 3, 2021
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