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Aspiration of the elbow joint for treating radial head fractures.

BACKGROUND: Radial head fracture is the most common fracture of the elbow. It usually results from a fall onto an outstretched arm. In 1954, Mason classified these fractures into type 1 (undisplaced), type 2 (simple displaced), and type 3 (comminuted fractures). Aspiration of the elbow joint aims to relieve pressure in the elbow joint and has been used as an initial treatment option for radial head fractures. However, it is an invasive technique with the potential for complications such as infection and injury to nerves and vessels.

OBJECTIVES: To assess the effects (benefits and harms) of elbow joint aspiration for treating radial head fracture in adults.

SEARCH METHODS: We searched the Cochrane Bone, Joint and Muscle Trauma Group Specialised Register (14 April 2014), the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL) (14 April 2014), MEDLINE (1946 to April Week 1 2014) and EMBASE (1980 to 2014 Week 15), trial registries, bibliographies and conference proceedings.

SELECTION CRITERIA: Randomised and quasi-randomised controlled clinical trials comparing aspiration versus no aspiration for treating radial head fractures in adults.

DATA COLLECTION AND ANALYSIS: Two review authors independently selected articles, assessed risk of bias and extracted data. Disagreements were resolved by discussion. Where appropriate, we pooled results of comparable studies using fixed-effect meta-analysis.

MAIN RESULTS: We included two trials that involved 126 participants but provided results for only 108 participants. Most participants were adults, typically over 30 years of age. Both trials were at high risk of selection, performance, detection and reporting bias. Reflecting this high risk of bias, we downgraded the quality of evidence two levels for study limitations and a further level for imprecision. Thus we judged the evidence for all outcomes to be 'very low' quality, meaning that we are very uncertain about these estimates.One trial included participants with Mason type 1, 2 or 3 radial head fractures and also a few cases of traumatic elbow hemarthrosis without fracture. The other trial included participants with Mason type 1 and 2 fractures. All participants were managed non-surgically.Neither trial reported functional outcome based on validated patient-reported outcome measures of function or pain using validated measures such as a visual analogue scale. Very low quality evidence (108 participants, two trials) indicates little difference between aspiration and no aspiration in impaired function (unable to carry heavy loads; discomfort when carrying loads) at 12 months (9/51 in aspiration group versus 7/57 in the no aspiration group; risk ratio 1.43 favouring no aspiration, 95% confidence interval (CI) 0.57 to 3.58). Very low quality evidence (two trials) suggests a beneficial effect of aspiration on pain relief immediately after aspiration. Very low quality evidence (one trial, 28 participants) shows less pain after aspiration at three weeks, but it is unclear whether this applies subsequently. Neither trial reported on adverse events (for example, nerve and vascular injuries; deep or superficial infection) from the procedure, but aspiration was reported as being unsuccessful in three participants (7.9%) in one trial. Very low quality evidence indicates little difference in range of motion (based on elbow extension) between the two groups at six weeks (28 participants, one trial) or 12 months (108 participants, two trials). The report of adverse events was incomplete, but one trial (80 participants) reported the absence of three specific complications: myositis ossificans, joint instability or late displacement of the fracture.

AUTHORS' CONCLUSIONS: There is insufficient evidence to determine the effectiveness of joint aspiration for the initial treatment of radial head fracture in terms of function, pain and range of motion or to determine the safety of the procedure. An examination of current aspiration use, the prospective collection of adverse events and consultation with patients as to their preferences and values would be helpful in guiding decisions about the future design of a multicentre randomised trial aiming to obtain definitive evidence on the use of aspiration for treating radial head fractures.

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