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Broken lower leg (fractured tibia or fibula)

Waewae tāwhatiwhati o raro (kapiti, takakaha rānei)

Broken lower leg, showing a break across the tibia and fibula, and swelling surrounding the breakYour tibia (or shin bone) and fibula are the two long bones in your lower leg and are important parts of your knee and ankle joints. This page explains what happens when you break (or fracture) one or both bones. There are separate pages about a broken ankle or broken knee.

The tibia is the larger bone and supports most of your weight. It's also the most common long bone to be broken.

One or both of the bones can break. Because it takes a lot of force to break a long bone, it often happens with other injuries. Your injury might also involve the knee joint at the top of your bones or the ankle joint at the bottom. See broken bones first aid.

High-energy collisions, such as a car or motorcycle crash and sports injuries, such as a fall while skiing or running into another player during rugby are common causes of a broken lower leg bone. Weak bones (for example, in someone with osteoporosis) tend to break more easily.

Your lower leg bones can break in many different ways and some breaks are worse than others. How bad a break it is depends on how many pieces the bone breaks into, whether they're stable or move around a lot, and whether the broken ends of the bone are still in the right place.

If you have an open fracture, this is particularly serious. An open fracture means bits of bone are sticking out through your skin or a cut or gash goes all the way down to your bone. Once your skin is broken, you're more likely to get infection in your wound and bone. You need to be treated immediately to stop this from happening.

Diagnosing a broken lower leg

If you have one or more of the following symptoms after an injury, you may have broken your leg:

If you think you may have broken your lower leg, it's important to see a doctor. They will ask about how your injury happened, look at your leg and take X-rays to find out which bone is broken and what kind of break it is. They may also X-ray above and below where you're sore, to check if you have any other nearby injuries. Occasionally, people also have a CT scan, which can show a complex break more clearly.

On the next page: Treating a broken lower leg

Written by HealthInfo clinical advisers. Last reviewed July 2022.

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Review key: HIHIL-240273