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What is an Orthopedic Cast?

Tricia Christensen
Updated Jan 20, 2024
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An orthopedic cast is merely a cast made traditionally from cotton bandages soaked in plaster of Paris. In a few minutes the bandages harden, forming a protective layer around an injured area, usually a broken or badly sprained bone. Sometimes the bone is reset prior to placing the cast. The cast’s function will then be to hold the bone in place to heal.

The orthopedic cast has been used since the 1800s. During the Crimean War, other materials that would harden into a cast were used to set broken bones. The initial version of an orthopedic cast was not always comfortable or helpful since plaster of Paris tends to expand as it dries. If inappropriately applied, it could create a cast so tight that blood circulation was cut off to the injured area. Although it rarely caused a tourniquet effect, it could delay healing instead of promoting it.

Problems with the orthopedic cast made of plaster of Paris persisted even into its most modern forms. People wearing a cast are susceptible to skin infections or irritations, and have limitations associated with wearing a cast. For example, one cannot shower or bathe with this type of cast, and it is fairly heavy.

To address problems associated with the plaster orthopedic cast, most physicians switched to fiberglass casting instead. Fiberglass casting is notably lighter, and takes less time to apply. However, skin irritation can still occur, in fact more so with fiberglass. Further, fiberglass tends to provide a slightly less comfortable fitting cast. One can still request a plaster cast, which may be provided should the physician have materials available.

There have been some improvements in the fiberglass orthopedic cast. A lining called PROCEL can make a fiberglass cast totally waterproof. This can be helpful for those who must be regularly exposed to water. It is a more expensive liner and not all insurances will cover the charge.

Instead of using an orthopedic cast, sometimes a physician chooses to use a removable splint or brace for certain types of broken or injured bones. These have the advantage of allowing one to remove the brace for a quick shower, or to simply air the skin. Those with chronic skin conditions may prefer them, as it is possible to apply lotion or ointment to the skin prior to putting the brace back on.

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Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGeek contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By anon270471 — On May 22, 2012

I had a cast applied to my leg after tib/fib injury. Today I have an area the size of a dime on my leg that looks like the skin has died. It has no color and an indentation.

By CopperPipe — On Jul 23, 2010

I remember breaking my arm as a kid and having one of those chunky plaster arm casts -- that thing was heavy!

I bet it's so much nicer now to have the fiberglass ones. Although after reading about the skin issues that come with the fiberglass ones, I wonder if I had it so bad after all.

By googlefanz — On Jul 23, 2010

For those who want to avoid the plastic bag/rubber band scenario when trying to bathe with a cast, there are waterproof cast covers available on the market.

Apparently they are a kind of rubber tube that can be sealed to keep out water, allowing people to bathe or swim even with a plaster cast.

I've never tried one myself -- anyone have any experience with these?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGeek contributor, Tricia...
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