What Is a Growth Plate Injury?

Bones do not fully develop until the ages of 13 to 15 for girls and 15 to 17 for boys. Until bones harden, they consist of soft and flexible cartilage. It is the softness of underdeveloped bones that can lead to injuries such as greenstick fractures, in which a bone bends and cracks instead of breaking cleanly. Children under the age of 10 are most likely to suffer greenstick fractures.

The growth plate (epiphyseal plate), describes the growing tissues at the end of long bones in adolescents. These tissues are newer bones that are still actively growing and developing. A child’s growth plates can determine the future length of the fully hardened bone. Unfortunately, an injury to the growth plate may impact bone development and cause future problems for the child. Growth plate injuries can be serious and cause unexpected lifelong damage.

How Do Growth Plate Injuries Happen?

Growth plate injuries can be common in physically active children. Since growth plates are the softest and most vulnerable areas of the skeletal frame, they can crack and fracture more easily than other bones. Growth plate injuries are more common than ligament or tendon tears in children involved in accidents. While an adult in the same situation might experience a musculoskeletal injury, a child is more likely to suffer damage to the growth plate. The most common circumstances surrounding a growth plate injury include:

  • A fall while running or playing
  • Skateboarding
  • Sledding, skiing, or snowboarding
  • Bicycle riding
  • Playing football or other sports
  • Auto accidents
  • Repetitive motions, such as pitching a baseball

Accidents, or other acute events during any sport or activity, could injure the growth plate, as can overuse or long-term repetitive stress on the plate. The most common areas for growth plate injuries are the radius (the outer bone in the forearm, at the wrist), tibia/fibula (lower leg bones), and femur (upper leg bone). Growth plate injuries can also affect the foot, ankle, or hip bone in children and adolescents.

Signs and Symptoms of a Growth Plate Injury

Your child might have a growth plate injury if he or she complains of joint or bone pain, especially after an incident or at a joint the child moves or works often. Do not ignore pain complaints or shrug them off as “growing pains.” A child should not work through a growth plate injury without medical treatment. A child with a damaged growth plate might experience aches, pain, swelling in the region, decreased ability to move or use the joint, or visible deformity.

Types of Growth Plate Injuries

The most common growth plate injury is a fracture. This happens when the rubbery cartilage endplate breaks or cracks. The two main types of growth plate fractures are closed reduction and open reduction. A closed reduction does not involve broken skin, while an open reduction means the growth plate fractured through the skin. Closed reduction fractures may involve moving the bone back into place and immobilizing it during healing. Open reductions are more serious and may require surgery, pins, or screws for treatment.

Outlook for Kids With Growth Plate Injuries

Most children heal completely from growth plate injuries, without lifelong effects. Some patients, however, may suffer bone-related growth issues and complications from a damaged plate. Some growth plate injuries result in crooked healing, a crooked adult bone, and long-term damage. Others may cause bone growth arrest, or a bone that stops growing. Bone arrest can cause issues such as mismatching arm or leg lengths and related residual problems. If an open reduction causes an infection, further complications can arise.

It’s critical to bring your child to a doctor as soon as you suspect a growth plate fracture. Prompt, professional medical care can help fix your child’s vulnerable bones, set them up for proper healing, and prevent long-term damage. Communicate often with your child’s orthopedist, especially if you notice bones with abnormal growth patterns, curvatures, or ridges under the skin.