When kids break bones, they worry about how long they’ll need to wear casts.
Meanwhile, health care providers look for signs that fractures have affected children’s bone growth, which can happen when kids experience growth plate injuries.
Fractures to growing areas of the bone
Growth plates are cartilage areas at the ends of bones that haven’t hardened yet because the bones are still growing. These areas are weaker and more susceptible to injury than hardened parts of the bone.
A growth plate injury is a fracture to the cartilage area of a growing bone. Between 15 and 30 percent of childhood fractures involve a growth plate, said Dr. Jacob Lonsdale, a non-operative pediatric orthopedist at Marshfield Clinic.
Younger kids with several years of growing left are more likely than older kids to experience growth plate injuries because their growth plates are larger, said Sam Voight, a Marshfield Clinic licensed athletic trainer. Girls usually stop growing at 12-14 years old, while boys keep growing until they are 16-18.
Complications can vary
At best, growth plate injuries don’t cause any problems. At worst, they can cause the injured bones to stop growing.
“These injuries are potentially more harmful if they happen earlier because younger kids have more time left to grow,” Lonsdale said.
Children who have six months left to grow usually don’t have long-term problems after growth plate injuries. Children who have six years of growing left have a greater chance of problems with injured limbs, like shortened or crooked arms or legs, poor range of motion or pain.
Fractures near the hip, ankle or knee are more likely to cause complications than breaks near the elbow or wrist, Lonsdale said.
Treatment, follow-up are important
Growth plate injuries are treated like other fractures. Your child’s doctor will make sure the bone is in the best possible position for normal healing using a cast, splint or surgery.
The bone may heal normally, but growth plate damage can’t be reversed. It’s hard to know for sure if children will have problems later and how severe the problems may be.
“The majority of kids do fine after a fracture, but for a small percentage the bone permanently stops growing,” Lonsdale said. “They need to be followed and monitored so they can have the best possible functioning.”
Surgery, adaptive prosthetics and orthotics and physical and occupational therapy can help correct problems and improve function.
Use protective equipment
Growth plate injuries often happen while kids are playing on the playground or participating in sports.
“Parents, gym teachers and coaches should make sure kids have the required and recommended safety equipment for their sports and learn proper movements for complex skills,” Voight said.
The American Academy of Pediatrics advises against letting kids use home trampolines, a common thread in many childhood fractures.