Treating Transitional Ankle Fractures: Best Evidence Yet

Transitional fractures of the ankle in adolescents are related to torsional injuries that occur around the time that the distal tibial physis begins to close. In recent years, treatment has moved toward screw fixation when the intra-articular fracture gap in Salter type III (Tillaux) and type IV (triplane) fractures is  between 1 mm and 2 mm. The rationale for operative treatment has been that intra-articular fracture gaps should be completely reduced, particularly in younger patients, to limit the long-term risk of post-traumatic osteoarthroses. However, evidence supporting the wisdom of surgical intervention has been thin at best. (See Clinical Summary on Triplane Ankle Fractures.)

In the April 15, 2020 issue of The Journal, Lurie et al. report on a retrospective analysis of 34 patients with a triplane fracture and 23 patients with a Tillaux fracture, all of which had 2 mm to 5 mm of articular displacement. Among those 57 patients, 34 were treated with surgery and 23 with closed reduction and casting.

Based on regression analysis, nonoperative treatment, a larger intra-articular gap after closed reduction, and the presence of a grade-III complication were associated with worse functional outcomes at a mean follow-up of 4.5 years. Patients who were treated nonoperatively and had a gap ≤2.5 mm had significantly better functional scores than similar patients with a gap >2.5 mm. From this data, the authors conclude that “surgical management of these injuries likely conveys the greatest functional benefit when the intra-articular gap exceeds 2.5 mm.”

This study has the usual issues of treatment and detection bias inherent in retrospective reviews, and the measurement of fracture gaps, even with the CT scans these authors used, is not always reliable at this level of precision. Nevertheless, this data from Lurie et al. is the best we have to date to indicate that the so-called “2-mm rule” of nonoperative management of transitional ankle-fracture gaps  ≤2 mm probably makes sense in most clinical situations.

Marc Swiontkowski, MD
JBJS Editor-in-Chief

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