Dr Sarah Jarvis, MBE
Author: Dr Sarah Jarvis, MBE, General Practitioner (GP)

Sarah is the Clinical Director of the Patient Platform, an active medical writer, broadcaster, and is the resident doctor for BBC Radio 2.

8 min read

Broken or fractured bones?

The first thing to know is that to all intents and purposes, the terms 'fractured bone' and 'broken bone' are interchangeable. That means the same rules apply whether you've been told you have a broken or a fractured bone.

If you’ve suffered a nasty injury which has resulted in a fractured or broken bone – it is still possible to travel. However, it depends on whether your healthcare professional says it's safe, your own personal circumstances (in terms of how physically limited/disabled you are as a result of the injury) and the requirements of your chosen airline.

That means the first person you should consult before even considering travelling with a broken bone is your doctor or physio. A broken bone or fracture is a debilitating injury that will affect your holiday no matter what.

So, you should always get the appropriate medical advice, including any adaptations you may need to make to your travel plans.

How long does a broken bone take to heal?

This depends entirely on the person and the nature of the injury itself. Some minor fractures can repair within 3 weeks with the right treatment. Most severe breaks can take more than 10 weeks to recover.

Obviously, the younger the person, the faster it will take for the injury to heal. So, if you’ve only recently sustained the injury, but have a holiday pencilled in the calendar – it would be wise to get an idea of when you’re likely to make a full recovery.

It's also worth bearing in mind that even after your bone has healed, you may still be left with muscle weakness of pain. It’s difficult for a physiotherapist to accurately predict a recovery date, but they can give you a rough idea. This will help you plan and adapt your routines to cater for your travel arrangements in good time.

How long does swelling last after a broken bone?

When it comes to air travel, swelling is far from ideal. As well as cabin pressure, sitting down for an extended period of time can cause swelling in the leg and around the ankles and feet. In most cases, this is fairly normal for most people – and shouldn’t be a concern.

However, after an initial bone fracture, the body responds with swelling around the break itself. This is most marked in the first week or two after an injury.

Flying with a broken neck or spine

A broken neck or spine is obviously often a very severe and debilitating injury. If you have a severe spinal injury, it’s very unlikely that you'll be able to fly.

Sometimes you can break the tip off one of the vertebrae (spinal bones). This is extremely painful but doesn't carry the same risk of affecting your spinal cord, which can lead to paralysis. If this is the case, provided you can maintain sitting in an upright position for an extended period of time, you may be allowed to fly. However, the airline will also have to judge your condition and physical wellbeing in line with their own policy, so you'll need to contact them beforehand.

If you’re flying with a wheelchair, the airline needs to know. It’s likely that a member of airport staff will be able to walk you through the terminal building to the aircraft itself.

Can I fly with a plaster cast?

That depends on your travel operator. If you break a bone while you're on holiday, or immediately before, your airline may require you to wait for at least 24 hours (48 hours for flights over two hours) before you fly.

Swelling is common after a fracture and at best, swelling can cause pain and discomfort, especially during a long -haul flight.  Sitting still for prolonged periods on a flight already slightly increases your risk of a potentially dangerous clot on the leg, called a DVT. If you have a newly fitted leg plaster cast and you get swelling, this risk can be increased further.

You could also be at risk of a very painful condition called compartment syndrome, which can result in permanent damage to your muscles without prompt treatment. This can affect any part of the body confined by a plaster cast.

Your doctor may recommend splitting your cast before you fly to relieve pressure and reduce the risk of complications. This may mean you'll need to have your cast replaced when you arrive. If it's split before you fly off to your holiday, it may need to be split again before you fly back.

The size of the risk you run from travelling with a plaster cast depends on how recent the injury was, which bone you've broken and your general health. Always get permission from your doctor before flying with a plaster cast.

Tulum, Mexico

Flying with a broken leg in plaster

If you have a leg plaster and need a wheelchair, you should inform your airline as soon as possible. They can arrange a wheelchair at both ends and there's usually no charge for this.

If you need crutches for support, you’ll need to let the airline or tour operator know that you’ll be flying with them. However, when you’re actually on board the aircraft, you won’t be able to use them as they’ll probably be stored in the hold with all other luggage.

If you have a below-knee plaster and you can bend your knee, you'll be able to use a normal seat. However, with a full-length plaster you'll need special seating arrangements. This may involve purchasing an extra seat from the airline.

Flying with a broken arm in a cast

As with a leg in plaster, you'll need medical sign-off to fly with a broken arm and will probably need to wait at least 24 (or 48 for longer flights) hours after the plaster is applied. But after this, if you can remain comfortably seated and your seatbelt can be applied as normal, it shouldn’t be a problem.

However, don’t worry about asking for a special assistance for a broken arm. In fact, for any type of injury where a fracture is involved, the airline may be able to give you a seat with one or multiple empty seats next to it to maximise the amount of personal space for yourself and ensure you’re as comfortable as possible for the duration of the flight.

Obviously, this isn’t always guaranteed as a standard service, but if you don’t ask, you don’t get.

Travel insurance for a broken bone

Injuries of this nature aren’t usually covered in a standard travel insurance policy. So, to ensure you’re fully covered, you’ll need to purchase a specialist travel insurance policy that covers you for your particular ailment.

With Medical Travel Compared, you can compare quotes for specialist medical travel insurance in no time. We work with a variety of reputable providers that specialise in cover for injuries like those listed above.

Besides a broken arm or broken leg, you can also find cover for a number of different injuries – from a fractured rib to a broken wrist. All you need to do is start our quick and easy application form today and find a specialist policy to suit you.

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