JBJS Classics: Sarmiento Pioneered Weight-Bearing Fracture Healing

JBJS ClassicsOrthoBuzz 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.

Prior to the innovative work of Gus Sarmiento in the 1960s, most orthopaedic surgeons treated tibial shaft fractures with a prolonged period of immobilization, in a long-leg non-weight bearing cast. While the fracture usually healed, knee joint stiffness and atrophy of the entire limb usually resulted as well.

In this 1967 JBJS classic, Sarmiento extended the concept of early weight-bearing treatment of these fracture as advocated by Dehne and others by incorporating the limb in a below-the-knee total-contact plaster cast, a technique that had recently been developed for the early rehabilitation of a below-the-knee amputation. The skin-tight plaster cast was applied over a single layer of stockinette one to two weeks after the acute swelling had subsided. It was molded proximally to contain the muscles of the proximal leg, and it had medial and lateral condylar flares, similar to a patellar-tendon-bearing (PTB) prosthesis.

Sarmiento encouraged early weight bearing in the cast, as he believed that doing so stimulated fracture healing. His confidence was borne out by this report of 100 consecutive tibial shaft fractures treated with a PTB cast. All 100 fractures healed, and healing occurred with minimal deformity or shortening. This success soon led to Sarmiento’s development of a functional below-the-knee tibial fracture brace made of Orthoplast®, a thermoplastic material which, when heated in a water bath, could be molded easily to the injured limb.

While today most tibial shaft fractures are treated with intramedullary nails, the principles developed by Sarmiento still apply, as the nail acts much like the fracture brace to maintain alignment during the healing process. Fracture healing is enhanced by weight bearing, and joint stiffness and muscle atrophy are avoided by early motion.

Sarmiento’s concept of functional treatment was later extended to the treatment of humeral and ulnar shaft fractures, which commonly continue today to be managed effectively with fracture braces that he developed. This emphasis upon early functional restoration while the fracture is healing has allowed many patients to achieve faster healing and to resume full function much sooner.

James D. Heckman, MD

JBJS Editor Emeritus

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