Background: In the treatment of distal radial fractures, physicians often advocate internal fixation over cast treatment for potentially unstable fracture patterns, citing the difficulties of successful nonoperative treatment and a decrease in patient tolerance for functional deficiencies. This study was performed to evaluate whether early internal fixation or nonoperative treatment would be preferred for displaced, potentially unstable distal radial fractures that initially had an adequate reduction.
Methods: A decision analytic model was created to compare early internal fixation with use of a volar plate and nonoperative management of a displaced, potentially unstable distal radial fracture with an acceptable closed reduction. To identify the optimal treatment, quality-adjusted life expectancy was estimated for each management approach. Data from the literature were used to estimate rates of treatment complications (e.g., fracture redisplacement with nonoperative treatment) and of treatment outcomes. Mean health-state utilities for treatment outcomes of painless malunion, functional deficit, and painful malunion were derived by surveying fifty-one adult volunteers with use of the time trade-off method. Sensitivity analysis was used to determine which model parameters would change the treatment decision over a plausible range of values.
Results: Early internal fixation with volar plating was the preferred strategy in most scenarios over the ranges of parameters available, but the margins were small. The older patient (mean age, 57.8 years) who sustains a distal radial fracture can expect 0.08 more quality-adjusted life years (29.2 days) with internal fixation compared with nonoperative treatment. Sensitivity analysis revealed no single factor that changed the preferred option within the reported ranges in the base case. However, the group of patients sixty-five years or older, who had lower disutility for painful malunion, derived a very small benefit from operative treatment (0.01 quality-adjusted life year or 3.7 days) and would prefer cast treatment in some scenarios.
Conclusions: Internal fixation with use of a volar plate for potentially unstable distal radial fractures provided a higher probability of painless union on the basis of available data in the literature. This long-term gain in quality-adjusted life years outweighed the short-term risks of surgical complications, making early internal fixation the preferred treatment in most cases. However, the difference was quite small. Patients, especially those over sixty-four years old, who have lower disutility for the malunion and painful malunion outcome states may prefer nonoperative treatment.
Level of Evidence: Economic and decision analysis Level II. See Instructions to Authors for a complete description of levels of evidence.