Bones aren’t easy to break, but that doesn’t stop us from obliterating them on an alarmingly frequent basis. The average person will have two fractures during their lifetime.1 This would be a good time to dispel the myth that a broken bone heals stronger than it originally was. Bone density increases with use and, conversely, decreases during prolonged periods of inactivity. This is known as Wolff’s Law and it’s the reason astronauts have dramatically decreased bone density after spending long periods of time in space. Nobody ever mentions that little perk when they encourage childhood dreams of space exploration. Wolff’s Law is also the reason tennis players and baseball pitchers have greater density in their dominant arm. Imagine your arm breaks. It’s put in a cast and you’re sent off to recover. As the bone heals the body devotes an awful lot of resources to the troubled area and calcium is constantly being deposited. As this is happening, you aren’t using your arm as much as you normally would so the rest of the bone’s density is decreasing. For a brief period it is possible that the fully healed site of the break is stronger than the rest of the arm and this is likely the root of the often-used line “it will heal stronger.” Ah, humans and their eternal optimism.
Of the 206 bones in the human body, the most commonly broken bone is the ankle.2 Its role (no pun intended) as a supporting hinge for almost all of the body’s weight puts it in a particularly vulnerable position, especially when you decide to run or play sports. And even more especially when you consider obesity rates in developed countries. After the ankle, the most common bones broken are: collarbone, arm, wrist and hip. After that it’s pretty much a crapshoot of freak accidents, loss of balance, and oh shits. All you can do is watch your step and hope that everything clicks in place. Even then, our bodies are subject to twists of fate and extremely unlucky accidents. Consider Californian construction worker Ron Hunt, who in 2003 fell off a ladder face first into a goddamn 18-inch drill bit.3 Doctors were understandably confused about how to save Hunt, who survived the fall. Hours and hours of complex surgery eventually allowed the doctors to remove the drill piece by piece. JUST KIDDING. They unfuckingscrewed that 18-inch drill bit from his head like his skull was an old piece of floorboard. No one deserves to whine about a paper cut after hearing about something like that.
Things all in all could be worse for us today. We take for granted that in most developed places on the planet we can simply go to a hospital and have ourselves patched up within a couple of hours, or have a drill unscrewed through our face. Human history however, is racked with horror stories stemming from medical malpractice and misinformation. Doctors used to believe the cure for common illnesses was bloodletting. This horribly ineffective practice was used for almost 2,000 years, right up until the late 19th century. Veins were punctured and ill “humors” were released as blood dripped into bowls or into the mouths of hungry leeches. Leeches were so popular that they were allegedly imported by the millions to France and England in the early 19th century. Thankfully we slap Band-Aids on cuts instead of bloodthirsty worms nowadays.
In the 1500s, a broken bone was something that only a “bone-setter” could heal.4 This profession was seen as almost an art form, as the bone-setter would run his hands along the bone to locate the break by touch and determine the best way to set it and begin healing. Early medicine was no joke. Archaeological evidence from Siberia shows that ancient nomads of the region performed major skull surgery around 2,300-2,500 years ago. Skulls from the Altai Mountains show that individuals survived procedures that involved scraping the skull with a bronze tool.5 In Chengdu, China bamboo slips dating from the Western Han Dynasty (202 BC – 9 AD) are purported to have been written by successors of Bian Que.6 Legend has it that Bian Que performed the first organ transplant when he exchanged the hearts of two men to rebalance their energies. Now we just chug a beer or head to an over-priced yoga class to do that.
Bruises are another of the fascinating processes that the body undertakes to heal itself. Like a soft rotten spot on a piece of fruit, a bruise lets you know that something is amiss. A bruise, also known as a contusion, is caused by blood leaking from damaged blood vessels and, obviously, the harder the impact the more bruised because the more vessels are damaged. Correlatively, bruising often gets worse with age due to the deterioration of blood vessels. A firm punch to the arm of an 18 year old and an 80 year old will often produce a drastically difficult result. But let’s hope you aren’t going around punching octogenarians on the regular.
The body is an amazing blob of moving parts, and we sure know how to make a mess of it on occasion. The ways a person could injure, maim, or kill themselves are literally infinite. If anything proves that point it’s a simple Google search of freak accidents or injuries. Although it’s not a particularly pleasant category to wade through, it certainly confirms the sadistic and profoundly unlucky diversity in our fate. We sling arms over lovers and legs across crosswalks every day without considering what’s moving and jouncing along underneath our skin. We’re bags of glass who get by on pain pills and bikini waxes without thinking too much about the corporeal unit that contains a soul or whatever you want to call whatever you are. Look at you. Beautiful, broken, lucky, curious, freakish, greasy tower of bones.