Few things are more disheartening to an orthopaedic surgeon than taking a patient back into the operating suite to treat a failure of fixation. In part, that’s because we realize that the chances of obtaining stable fixation, especially in elderly patients with poor bone density, are diminished with the second attempt. We are additionally cognizant of the risks (again, most significant in the elderly) to cardiopulmonary function with a second procedure shortly after the initial one.
These concerns have led us historically to instruct patients to limit weight bearing for 4 to 6 weeks after hip-fracture surgery. On the other hand, we have seen evidence in cohort studies to suggest that instructing elderly patients with proximal femur fractures to bear weight “as tolerated” after surgery is safe and does not increase the risk of fixation failure.
In the June 6, 2018 issue of The Journal, Kammerlander et al. demonstrate that 16 cognitively unimpaired elderly patients with a proximal femur fracture were unable to limit postoperative weight bearing to ≤20 kg on their surgically treated limb—despite 5 training sessions with a physiotherapist focused on how to do so. In fact, during gait analysis, 69% of these elderly patients exceeded the specified load by more than twofold, as measured with insole force sensors. This inability to restrict weight bearing is probably related to balance and lower-extremity strength issues in older patients, but it may be challenging for people of any age to estimate and regulate how much weight they are placing on an injured lower limb.
With this and other recent evidence, we should instruct most elderly patients with these injuries to bear weight as comfort allows and prescribe correspondingly active physical therapy. As surgeons, we should focus our efforts on the quality and precision of fracture reduction and placement of surgical implants. This will lead to higher patient, family, and physical-therapist satisfaction and pave the way for a more active postoperative rehabilitation period and better longer-term outcomes.
Marc Swiontkowski, MD