This nonrandomized retrospective comparative study by Jawa and colleagues evaluates selected outcomes of operative and nonoperative treatment of extra-articular distal-third fractures of the humerus. This study confirms several general points that have been suspected by many. First, functional bracing achieves excellent union rates without sacrificing elbow or shoulder motion. Angulatory alignment, however, is less predictable with bracing than with operative treatment, with some degree of varus being the most common resultant deformity. Second, surgical treatment also appears to facilitate restoration of shoulder and elbow motion, but with risks of sepsis and iatrogenic radial nerve palsy. Last, surgical treatment is commonly used for managing these injuries in patients with associated injuries.
The authors describe the critical features that are required for the successful functional bracing of these fractures. These features were initially described and popularized by Sarmiento et al.1. Importantly, maintenance of proper brace application, avoidance of early shoulder elevation and abduction, and minimization of external elbow support are intended to minimize the tendency to varus angulation. Despite this, a number of patients still demonstrated residual varus deformity. Although not addressed in the current study, the long-term consequences of supracondylar varus deformity on elbow function and stability may not be as benign as previously thought, and these consequences should be considered when choosing a treatment method2.
One of the key features for the successful operative treatment of these injuries is secure fracture fixation, particularly of the distal segment. As illustrated by the authors, numerous techniques are available, including dual and single-plate constructs with or without the use of locking screws. The choice of surgical exposure and type of definitive implant is dependent on several factors, including the fracture pattern, associated wounds and injuries, and bone quality, among others. Whichever implant(s) and surgical exposure are utilized, however, identification and mobilization of the radial nerve are critical to the avoidance of iatrogenic nerve injury3,4.
The conclusions of this study are limited by differences in associated injuries, nonuniform surgical interventions in the operatively treated patients, group sample-size differences, and a lack of longer-term functional outcomes. These limitations make definitive recommendation of one treatment method over the other difficult. Larger randomized studies with uniform surgical interventions are required to help answer many of the other questions that arise when treating these fractures.
*The authors did not receive any outside funding or grants in support of their research for or preparation of this work. Neither they nor a member of their immediate families received payments or other benefits or a commitment or agreement to provide such benefits from a commercial entity. No commercial entity paid or directed, or agreed to pay or direct, any benefits to any research fund, foundation, division, center, clinical practice, or other charitable or nonprofit organization with which the authors, or a member of their immediate families, are affiliated or associated.
1. Sarmiento A, Horowitch A, Aboulafia A, Vangsness CT Jr. Functional bracing for comminuted extra-articular fractures of the distal third of the humerus. J Bone Joint Surg Br. 1990;72:283-7.
2. O'Driscoll SW, Spinner RJ, McKee MD, Kibler WB, Hastings H 2nd, Morrey BF, Kato H, Takayama S, Imatani J, Toh S, Graham HK. Tardy posterolateral rotatory instability of the elbow due to cubitus varus. J Bone Joint Surg Am. 2001;83:1358-69.
3. Gerwin M, Hotchkiss RN, Weiland AJ. Alternative operative exposures of the posterior aspect of the humeral diaphysis with reference to the radial nerve. J Bone Joint Surg Am. 1996;78:1690-5.
4. Mills WJ, Hanel DP, Smith DG. Lateral approach to the humeral shaft: an alternative approach for fracture treatment. J Orthop Trauma. 1996;10:81-6.