Science / Health

Treating Leg and Ankle Injuries from Bicycle and Motorcycle Accidents

While many people love riding motorcycles and bicycles as economical modes of transportation and the sense of freedom they feel while riding, motorcyclists and cyclists both have a much higher risk of being seriously injured or killed in collisions. The National Safety Council (NSC) reports that while motorcycles only make up 3% of all registered vehicles, they accounted for 14% of all motor vehicle fatalities in 2020. During that year, 5,579 motorcyclists were killed in collisions, and 82.500 suffered nonfatal injuries. Similarly, bicyclists have a much higher fatality and injury rate in accidents as compared to passenger car occupants. The NSC reports that 932 bicyclists were killed in accidents in 2020, and 425,910 were treated in the emergency department for nonfatal injuries.

Both motorcycle and bicycle crashes commonly are more severe than car wrecks because of the minimal protection that motorcyclists and bicyclists have against the physical forces released in collisions. While they can suffer many different types of injuries, some of the most common types include injuries to the lower extremities, including leg and ankle injuries. Here is some information about the treatment of accident-related leg and ankle injuries following motorcycle or bicycle crashes.

Causes of Motorcycle or Bicycle Crash Leg and Ankle Injuries

According to a study conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), injuries to the lower extremities are the most common type of injuries suffered in motorcycle collisions. The following were the most common areas to be injured in collisions:

  • Leg injuries – 28%
  • Pelvic injuries – 18%
  • Knee injuries – 15%
  • Thigh injuries – 11%
  • Ankle injuries – 10%

Injuries to the lower extremities in motorcycle and bike crashes are common because the legs and feet are largely unprotected. Depending on the relative height of involved cars, the lower extremities might absorb the brunt of collisions. Similarly, in solo crashes, motorcyclists and cyclists might fall on their legs and feet, causing injuries and fractures.

Some of the most common types of leg and ankle injuries include the following:

  • Road rash
  • Avulsions
  • Fractures of the leg or ankle
  • Crushed kneecaps
  • Major crush injuries
  • Knee dislocations
  • Torn ligaments, cartilage, or tendons

Diagnosis of Leg and Ankle Injuries

Some leg and ankle injuries following motorcycle or bicycle collisions are obvious. For example, road rash or fractures that break through the skin will be immediately apparent. When you go to the emergency department, doctors will ask you several questions about your accident and medical history and will complete a physical examination of your legs and ankles. The doctor might have to physically manipulate the ankle, which can be painful.

If the doctor believes you have an ankle or leg injury that is not immediately visible, he or she might order an x-ray to identify fractures. Other imaging studies might also be ordered, including magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or a computerized tomography (CT) scan to identify soft tissue injuries to the tendons, ligaments, and cartilage.

The treatment that might be recommended will depend on the specific type of injury and its severity.

Treatment of Leg and Ankle Injuries Following a Motorcycle or Bicycle Crash

Once your injuries have been diagnosed, your doctor will develop a treatment plan to address them. The treatments you might have to undergo include the following:

  • Surgical intervention to remove bone splinters or repair torn tissues
  • Amputation for major crush injuries
  • Surgery to re-set femur or ankle bones following fractures
  • Physical therapy and rehabilitation
  • Casts to immobilize broken bones
  • Skin grafts and reconstructive surgery for severe road rash
  • Antibiotics to prevent infection
  • Pain medication to alleviate pain

If an x-ray reveals that your ankle or leg is broken, you might have to undergo surgery. Your ankle is comprised of the distal ends of your tibia and fibula, which are the bones of your lower leg, and joins them together with tendons, ligaments, and cartilage. If your ankle is broken, your doctor might perform a reduction to realign your bones and then immobilize the joint with a cast or splint.

A fractured femur will typically require surgery followed by a long period of physical therapy and casting. The femur is the large bone of your upper leg. Your doctor might have to perform surgery to repair the fracture and might have to use pins or screws to set it. Your femur will have to be immobilized for several months, which can lead your muscles to atrophy. Because of this, a femur fracture will typically require several months of physical therapy and rehabilitation to preserve and rebuild muscle and strength.

Unfortunately, some people involved in serious collisions involving motor vehicles will suffer severe crush injuries to their legs or feet. Major crush injuries occur when the legs are crushed beneath the weight of a vehicle or between the vehicle and the bicycle or motorcycle. These types of injuries are generally so severe that the affected leg cannot be repaired or saved. If you suffer a major crush injury of your leg, your doctor might have to amputate the injured portion. An amputation will require significant rehabilitation and training in how to use prosthetic devices to restore mobility.

The treatment of road rash will vary based on its severity. Minor road rash injuries are generally superficial and might be treated with oral antibiotics, cleaning, and the application of clean dressings while they heal. Severe road rash injuries to your legs might require skin grafts and reconstructive surgery to repair the damage. Complications might also arise, including serious infections, so your doctor will likely monitor you and intervene if an infection develops.

If you have to wear a cast on your leg or ankle, your muscles will need strengthening once the cast is removed. This means you will likely have to complete rehabilitation and physical therapy with the goal of returning to your normal activities as soon as possible. Your doctor won’t return you to your normal routine until you have regained your full range of motion and strength without experiencing pain. Since the healing process differs for everyone, you should not attempt to return to your normal routine until your doctor agrees to avoid reinjury.

Potential Complications

Serious leg or ankle injuries can involve complications that will need to be addressed. Some of the types of complications that could arise include the following:

  • Development of arthritis in the joints
  • Deformity
  • Infections
  • Bleeding
  • Adverse reaction to anesthesia during surgery
  • Deep vein thrombosis

How to Reduce Your Risk of Leg or Ankle Injuries in Crashes

While it is not possible to prevent leg or ankle injuries in crashes, there are some things you can do to reduce your risk of serious injuries. Make sure that you always wear adequate leg protection when you ride your motorcycle, including motorcycle pants and boots. Jeans do not provide adequate protection from injuries. Proper motorcycle pants should include a Kevlar lining to give you an added layer of protection.

If you are riding your bicycle, you should avoid wearing loose pants that could get caught in the gears. You should also wear knee pads to protect your knees. When a car hits a bicycle or motorcycle, riders can be thrown off of their bikes, causing them to slide across the pavement. To protect yourself from road rash injuries, wear clothing that offers protection instead of regular clothing.

Leg and ankle injuries are common in motorcycle and bike crashes. By always exercising caution when you ride and wearing proper safety gear, you can help to reduce your risk of crash involvement and injuries. If you are involved in a crash despite your caution, make sure to immediately seek medical attention to obtain a proper diagnosis and treatment.

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