JBJS Classics: Antibiotics and Open Fractures
OrthoBuzz regularly brings you a current commentary on a “classic” article from The Journal of Bone & Joint Surgery. These articles have been selected by the Editor-in-Chief and Deputy Editors of The Journal because of their long-standing significance to the orthopaedic community and the many citations they receive in the literature. Our OrthoBuzz commentators highlight the impact that these JBJS articles have had on the practice of orthopaedics. Please feel free to join the conversation about these classics by clicking on the “Leave a Comment” button in the box to the left.
From the time of Hippocrates until after the American Civil War, open fractures and other wounds prone to sepsis were fatal injuries in approximately 50% of patients, and amputation of the affected limb was recognized as lifesaving treatment. With the adoption of antisepsis and formal surgical débridement in the late 19th century, improved stabilization techniques in the 20th century, and the introduction of antibiotics, death as an outcome was virtually eliminated, but nonunion with or without infection remained challenging complications.
In the 1960s, reports concluding that in open fracture care “prophylactic antibiotics were of questionable value” created great debate and controversy among surgeons. The pioneering 1974 JBJS study by Patzakis et al., titled “The Role of Antibiotics in the Management of Open Fractures,” addressed this controversy by asking and answering three key questions:
- Is antibiotic prophylaxis worthwhile in open fractures?
- Which organisms cause the infections?
- Which antibiotics are effective?
The study demonstrated that nearly two-thirds of wounds caused by direct injury and an even higher rate of gunshot wounds were contaminated. That finding, along with the fact that several days must elapse before a culture can be considered truly sterile, makes true “prophylaxis” in open fractures practicable only if antibiotics are applied to all patients. Patzakis et al. also stressed that antibiotic treatment is not a substitute for the critically important practice of extensive surgical debridement of all devitalized tissue. Urgent surgical irrigation and debridement remain the mainstay of infection eradication, although questions persist regarding the optimal irrigation solution, volume, and delivery pressure.
I agree with the authors of this classic article that the term “prophylaxis” is not appropriate because these wounds should presumptively be considered contaminated and treated with effective antibiotics. Wound sampling has a poor predictive value in determining subsequent infections, so a first-generation cephalosporin should be administered as soon as possible, with or without coverage for gram-negative bacteria. In addition, as Lawing et al. found in a 2015 JBJS study, local aqueous aminoglycoside administration as an adjunct to systemic antibiotics may be effective in lowering infection rates in open fractures.
This classic prospective study by Patzakis et al. in the 1970s has prompted us to ask and pursue answers to many more clinical questions regarding open-fracture infections. For example, the optimal duration of antibiotic administration has not been well defined, but they should be continued for more than 24 hours. The evidence to support either extending the duration or broadening the antibiotic protocol for Gustilo type III wounds remains inconclusive, and more investigation into this question with higher-level research methods is needed.
Konstantinos Malizos, MD, PhD
JBJS Deputy Editor