The other option is surgery, where metal plates and screws are installed to hold the bones together. This usually shortens healing time, but the trade-off is an ugly scar and potential second operation to take the metal out.
Left Clavicle Fracture, Screw Fixation Before (left) and After (right) - Photo Courtesy of VeloNews
McGee had been down this road before and decided to have surgery. O'Grady skipped the doctor's visit, and opted to let nature take its course.
A fractured hip is another common cycling injury. Floyd Landis, for instance, washed out his front wheel during a 2003 training ride and needed surgery to fix the break. Unfortunately circulation never returned to normal, and Landis' dead bone eventually had to be replaced.
Spine fractures are less common, but when you collide with a railroad barricade as Zabriskie did, bad things tend to happen. Thirty-one bony building blocks known as vertebrae make up the spine. Their alignment is the basis for posture and balance. While the lumbar vertebrae of the low back are the largest and strongest, they also bear tremendous load as a transition zone from the trunk to the pelvis. Compression forces can overcome the vertebrae's strength, crushing the normal cube shape into a wedge.
Unlike pieces of broken wrist or collarbone, these spinal wedges are often impacted and inherently stable, meaning surgery usually isn't required. Of course Zabriskie was lucky his spinal cord wasn't involved. While it's a painful injury, a little time and patience usually gets you back to normal.
Regardless of what gets broken, bones have a remarkable ability to heal themselves. In as few as two weeks healing is visible via X-ray, and while that process will continue for up to a year, most fractures regain stability within a month.
One last piece of this conversation is cycling's impact on bone density and osteoporosis. In a 2003 study, researchers found that 50-year-old men who rode for 20 years had 10-percent less bone density than their non-cyclist counterparts.
It's tough to say whether this caused the carnage at the Giro, but clearly prevention is paramount. Doctors typically recommend taking in adequate calcium and vitamin D, performing some weight-bearing exercises, and of course, trying to keep the rubber on the road.
"Dr. Alex" is an orthopedic surgery resident at the University of Illinois Medical Center in Chicago. When he's not fixing broken bones you'll find him riding Chicago's North Shore with his wife and the Turin Bicycle Society crew.
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X-ray images courtesy of VeloNews.