Immobilization after Fixation of Distal Radial Fractures

short arm castOrthoBuzz occasionally receives posts from guest bloggers. This guest post comes from Matthew Herring, MD, in response to a recent study in JBJS.

Postoperative immobilization after internal fixation of fractures is common practice. However, immobilization after locked volar plate fixation of distal radial fractures may actually thwart our patients’ rehabilitation—at least in the short term. So suggest the findings from Watson et al. in the July 5, 2018 issue of JBJS.

The authors randomized 133 patients who underwent locked volar plate fixation of distal radial fractures to 1, 3, or 6 weeks of postoperative immobilization. All patients were placed into volar splints postoperatively. After 1 week, splints were removed entirely or converted to short-arm circumferential casts based on the patient’s allocation. All patients started physical therapy within 3 days of definitive splint or cast removal.

Outcomes were evaluated at 6, 12, and 26 weeks and included patient-reported measures (PRWE, VAS pain scores, and DASH), active wrist range of motion, and postoperative complications. Six weeks following surgery, the results favored 1 or 3 weeks of immobilization over 6 weeks of casting in terms of improved patient-reported outcomes and objective wrist range of motion. However, those between-group differences disappeared at 12 and 26 weeks of follow-up. No significant differences were found in complication rates between the 3 groups.

For me, the primary message of this article is that early mobilization after distal radial fracture fixation offers improved short-term outcomes with little or no risk of adverse effects. For most patients, a major goal of fracture treatment is to restore normal function as quickly as possible. With early mobilization, patients reported less pain and less disability, and they demonstrated greater range of motion at 6 weeks.

However, the quick restoration of function must be done safely and without complications. In this cohort, 6 patients lost fracture reduction—5 in the 1-week immobilization group and 1 in the 6-week group. While that difference was not statistically significant, the study was not sufficiently powered to detect that difference. A quick power analysis, assuming an anticipated 11% loss-of-reduction rate as seen in the 1-week group and a 2% rate as seen in the 6-week group, estimates that 234 patients would be needed to confidently avoid a type II error when analyzing loss of reduction.

Translating findings like these into practice constitutes the art of medicine. It is probably safe, and perhaps even beneficial, to allow early mobilization of distal radial fractures treated with volar locking plates. However, there is probably a subset of patients who are at risk for losing reduction, and therefore it may be prudent to have a low threshold for keeping certain patients casted for a longer duration. The orthopaedist who extends cast immobilization beyond 3 weeks can take comfort in the findings that reported outcomes and range of motion in the 6-week-immobilization group quickly caught up with the results of the early-mobilization cohorts by 12 weeks after surgery.

Matthew Herring, MD is a fellow in orthopaedic trauma at the University of California, San Francisco and a member of the JBJS Social Media Advisory Board.

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