COVID-19 infections spread rapidly in northern Italy from February to April of 2020. During that time, the orthopaedic unit at Humanitas Gavazzeni Hospital in Bergamo focused on elderly patients with both a femoral neck fracture and COVID-19. In a fast-tracked JBJS study, Catellani et al. report on what happened to 16 COVID-19-positive patients who were admitted to the hospital’s emergency department with a proximal femoral fracture:
- 3 patients died from severe respiratory insufficiency and multiple-organ failure before surgery could be considered or performed.
- 10 patients underwent fracture surgery on the day after admission; 3 had surgery on the third day after admission to allow washout of direct thrombin inhibitors.
- Oxygen saturation improved in all patients who underwent surgery except 1
- Hemodynamic and respiratory stability was achieved in 9 patients at an average of 7 days postsurgery.
- 4 patients who underwent surgery died of respiratory failure—1 on the first day after surgery, 2 on the third day after surgery, and 1 on the seventh day after surgery.
In general, the advantages of early treatment of proximal femoral fractures in the elderly include early mobilization and better pain control. On the other hand, orthopaedists consider severe respiratory insufficiency to be a contraindication to anesthesia and surgery. The anesthesiology team working with Catellani et al. recommended early surgery in these patients if their oxygen saturation was >90% and their body temperature was <38°C. Spinal anesthesia was used for all patients to avoid sedation and was combined with a peripheral femoral nerve block to achieve better pain management.
The authors concluded that most of these COVID19-positive patients who presented in less critical condition and underwent carefully planned and executed surgery for proximal femoral fractures experienced a notable stabilization of their respiratory parameters.
According to the orthopaedic literature, the risk of vascular injury during internal fixation of a proximal femoral fracture is low. But applying the findings from an anatomical analysis by Jaipurwala et al. in the November 6, 2019 issue of The Journal of Bone & Joint Surgery could help minimize that risk even further.
The authors examined lower-limb CT angiograms of 47 patients (mean age 69) who had the scans performed for reasons other than a femoral fracture. They then measured the distance from the tip of the greater trochanter to the profunda femoris artery and its perforators within 5 mm of the medial femoral shaft, along the length of typical placement of dynamic hip screws used for fixation of proximal femoral fractures. (The authors assumed the use of a 4-hole, 78 mm plate or a 6-hole, 110 mm plate.)
All 47 patients had 2 vessels within 5 mm of the medial femoral shaft along the line of presumed dynamic hip screw insertion. Noting that these vessels could be damaged by reduction instruments or during drilling and plate-screw insertion during actual cases of femoral-fracture fixation, Jaipurwala et al. make the following suggestions:
- Avoid or take special care when drilling or inserting screws along the femoral shaft from 110 to 120 mm from the tip of the greater trochanter in women and from 120 to 130 mm in men.
- If possible, avoid inserting a screw in the fourth hole of a 4-hole dynamic hip screw plate or inserting a screw in the fourth and fifth holes of a 6-hole plate.
The authors emphasize that these suggestions are based on measurements taken from patients who did not have a hip fracture and that “a femoral fracture may potentially alter local anatomy because of swelling and damage to surrounding structures.” But they conclude that the risk of vascular injuries in patients with a proximal femoral fracture would be further reduced if surgeons took these findings into account during operative planning and execution of hip-fracture fixation.
I’ll be honest: I have never worried much about breakage of the cephalomedullary nails I implant for proximal femur fractures. Instead, I’m focused on the fracture reduction, soft-tissue handling, and proper implant positioning. These nails are very strong. Sure, failures of these implants may occur and have been reported. But I have never had a lengthy discussion with a patient about the potential risk of the implant breaking during normal activity—and I doubt many other surgeons have either.
That is why the article by Lambers et al. in the May 1, 2019 issue of The Journal grabbed my attention. The authors carefully analyzed 16 cases in which a specific cephalomedullary nail (the TFNA, made from a titanium-molybdenum alloy) broke in 13 patients after an average of 5 months. Of note, 3 patients who underwent a revision with the same type of nail had a repeat fracture of the implant. The majority of these patients had been treated for a reverse oblique intertrochanteric fracture —a type that we all commonly see and treat—and all the fractures had been well reduced at the time of nail insertion.
The implant fractures all occurred at the proximal aperture of the nail and were consistent with fatigue fracture of the alloy. But they all showed a unique “stepped propagation” pattern, whereby, according to the authors, “a planar crack arrested, changed planes by 90°, progressed, arrested, and then changed planes again by 90° until final failure.”
These types of implant failures are not common for this nail, but they apparently happen more often than I thought. I am certain that the manufacturer will be responding to this data, and I look forward to future design changes—especially because the authors hypothesize that prior changes to this nail’s design and/or alloy may have contributed to these breakages. Then again, there may have been errors in technique that made these types of failures more common, or maybe a different implant would have been a better choice for some of these patients. To me, matching fracture type and implant choice is very important.
I look forward to learning more about this issue and will keep these types of implant failures in the back of my mind during hip-fracture cases. In the meantime, Lambers et al. advise “vigilant clinical and radiographic surveillance of patients with unstable hip fracture patterns who undergo osteosynthesis with use of a TFNA implant.”
Chad A. Krueger, MD
JBJS Deputy Editor for Social Media