Distal radial fractures are common, especially in the elderly, but the best management for these fractures in older patients remains controversial. Clinical practice guidelines issued in 2011 by the AAOS recommend operative treatment when certain angulation and shortening criteria are met. Meanwhile, some studies show that age >65 years is an independent risk factor for poor radiographic outcomes,1 while other studies suggest that older patients have acceptable functional outcomes despite radiographic loss of reduction.2 We may want to believe that anatomic reduction and normal-appearing radiographs will ensure improved outcomes, but the science has not always confirmed that connection, leaving us and our older patients in a bit of a conundrum.
In the January 2, 2020 issue of The Journal, DeGeorge et al. tackle this subject in a large retrospective analysis of data from patients ≥65 years old who had been managed for a distal radial fracture between 2009 and 2014. Among >13,000 distal radial fractures analyzed, 9,973 were treated nonoperatively and 3,740 were treated operatively. The average age of the entire cohort was 75.4 years, but the authors found that the operative group was significantly younger, and that nonoperative treatment was more commonly performed in patients with a greater number and severity of medical comorbidities, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, and dementia.
At 90 days, the overall complication rate was low (36.5 complications per 1,000 fractures), and the authors found no significant differences between the operative and nonoperative groups. However, the complication rate at 1 year was significantly higher in the operative group (307.5 per 1,000 fractures) compared to the nonoperative group (236.2 complications per 1,000 fractures). Stiffness was the most common complication across both groups, but it was significantly more common in the group that underwent operative management (occurring in 16% of that cohort). Also of note: approximately 10% of patients in each group developed chronic regional pain syndrome.
Despite the inherent weaknesses in retrospective database analyses (including, in this case, the inability to analyze indications for surgery), this study reveals some important facts that may help us better counsel older patients. Operative management of distal radial fractures in the elderly may yield better radiographic outcomes than nonoperative treatment, but that comes with a significantly increased risk of 1-year complications. Accepting a less-than-perfect reduction on radiographs and casting the fracture may be more beneficial than surgery for many of our elderly patients.
Matthew R. Schmitz, MD
JBJS Deputy Editor for Social Media
- Mackenny PJ, McQueen MM, Elton R. Prediction of instability in distal radius fractures. J Bone Joint Surg Am. 2006 Sep; 88(9):1944-1951.
- Grewal R, MacDermid JC. The risk of adverse outcomes in extra-articular distal radius fractures is increased with malalignment in patients of all ages but mitigated in older patients. J Hand Surg Am. 2007 Sep; 32(7):962-70.
Editor’s Note: Here is a list of previous OrthoBuzz posts about managing distal radial fractures:
- “Appropriate” Management of Distal Radial Fractures Improves Outcomes, Lowers Cost
- How Many X-Rays Does It Take to Treat a Distal Radial Fracture?
- Immobilization after Fixation of Distal Radial Fractures
- Association Between Distal Radial Fracture Malunion and Patient-Reported Activity Limitations
- Fixation Costs for Distal Radial Fracture
- Plate–Tendon Contact: How Important Is It?