Gypsum vs fiberglass: which is better for fractures?

Although for years the use of traditional plaster has been the most widely used option in the world in case of fractures, for some decades fiberglass restraints have provided numerous benefits for patients and health personnel.

Despite the differences, each of these materials has its own advantages and disadvantages. Therefore, the use of one option or another depends on the consideration of several factors. Are you interested in knowing more about the subject?

Traditional plasters

From a historical point of view, this material has been the most used for immobilization of limbs with fractures. It is made up of semi-hydrated calcium sulfate and requires a combination with water to harden.

As a result of chemical reactions that favor the presence of water, the plaster gradually releases heat, forms a paste and hardens on the patient's body. From then on it is unlikely to break, as long as the maintenance recommendations are followed.

The plaster has been the most used material in the immobilization of limbs with fractures.

Find out more: Bandages: everything you need to know

Profits

Gypsum is readily available in almost any region and is less expensive than fiberglass. This complements the fact that many of specialists were trained using this material, so the confidence and skill of experienced staff is often guaranteed.

Due to the semi-solid consistency that is obtained before it fully hardens, it is easy to mold the cast to some parts of the body that are difficult for health personnel to cover. This is more important in patients with reduced mobility due to some type of disability.

Disadvantages

If you've ever had a cast, you may remember the situation in the trauma room for these procedures. Plaster can stain almost any surface, requiring constant cleaning.

It is also heavy, and more uncomfortable compared to those made of fiberglass, something that can be difficult for children. As the plaster is brittle, requires a series of care to prevent them from disintegrating early. We will discuss it in the next section.

Care

Having a traditional cast for several weeks can become uncomfortable. According to information from the Mayo Clinic, if you have it, the following is recommended:

  • Be careful not to get a lot of water on it. A little liquid on the outer surface may not cause major effects, but if the water seeps inside it can break the material and irritate the skin.
  • In the case of the daily bath, it is necessary to use several plastic bags around for an insulating effect.
  • Unless otherwise instructed, the first few days you must keep the affected limb a little elevated to prevent fluid build-up (edema). The height required is above the level of the heart.

There is some controversy about the habit of scratching the surface of plaster to draw pictures or write keepsake phrases. The truth is that in some cases it can promote skin irritation and weakening of the material.

Fiberglass plasters

This material is more modern and is also known as 'synthetic plaster'. The placement technique is quite similar to the previous case, and fortunately it is a cleaner procedure, which can be done in a more orderly way.

With both materials it is necessary to place a layer of cotton under the cast in order to protect the skin and make having an immobilized limb more comfortable. In some countries it is known as wadding and it also has the ability to be a thermal insulator.

Find out more: How to make a splint for the hand

Profits

Fiberglass is a material that provides greater benefits for both the doctor and the patient. The most important are the following:

  • It allows better visualization of the bones when taking a plain X-ray. This is important to assess how the fracture's healing has been progressing, a process known as bone healing.
  • It is less heavy and more comfortable, so it favors mobility.
  • Some are resistant to moderate amounts of water (but they should not be over-exposed either).
  • They are usually durable.

All these benefits have allowed the gradual replacement of traditional gypsum in developed regions, although its use is still frequent in developing countries.

Disadvantages

Fiberglass is more expensive than the other material, which is its main disadvantage. However, considering its benefits, This has not prevented their inclusion in the trauma services of several hospitals nationwide.

Although the external part is resistant to water, the interior could be damaged if it is constantly exposed to this liquid. This also results in irritation of the skin and weakening of the material.

Care

The same care raised for traditional plaster can be applied for this material, taking into account the considerations on water previously exposed. It would also be helpful to remember the following:

  • You should not apply personal hygiene products to the edges of the cast, such as deodorants or creams, without prior authorization from the treating physician.
  • Avoid making sudden movements and adjusting the cast without indication made by a professional.
  • This type of immobilization usually leaves some tissue visible in the most distal part of the limb. You must keep an eye out for any change in color or sensitivity in the area, especially during the first hours.

Despite being resistant, and having greater benefits, you should not trust yourself. It is still a material that can deteriorate and that, without sufficient care, can lead to unnecessary medical visits.

Fiberglass casts require care similar to traditional cast. Direct contact with water should be avoided.

What to take into account when choosing between one and the other?

The decision about what type of cast to use is often a medical decision, especially in settings where resources are limited. However, tell your doctor or technical staff about the following situations:

  • Allergy to any type of substance or history of contact dermatitis.
  • Difficulties in mobilization due to some type of previous pathology.
  • Desire to use a specific type of material.

In any case, there are few contraindications to completely rule out the use of either of the two materials. Any other situation not contemplated in the previous list should be mentioned to the health personnel.

Immobilizations are safe, but you have to be vigilant

Complications after casting are generally very rare, although it is necessary to go to the doctor in case of presenting annoying symptoms. The most important are pain and excessive swelling, understanding that the goal of immobilizations is to reduce these problems.

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