The Pulseless Supracondylar Elbow Fracture: A Rational Approach

Samir Sabharwal, Adam Margalit, Ishaan Swarup, Sanjeev Sabharwal
Indian Journal of Orthopaedics 2021, 55 (1): 47-54

BACKGROUND: Supracondylar humerus fractures are the most common type of pediatric elbow fracture, accounting for 60-70% of all elbow fractures in children. Initial trauma and subsequent fracture displacement may damage surrounding neurovascular structures, leading to reports of associated neurovascular injury at rates as high as 49%, with vascular compromise reported in 3-19% of cases. This may be attributable to complete transection, kinking of the artery with reduced flow, thrombosis, intimal tear, arterial contusion or spasm, entrapment of the vessel within the fracture site or traumatic aneurysm of the brachial artery with subsequent thrombus formation.

PURPOSE: While there is general agreement that a child presenting with a pulseless white (dysvascular) hand associated with a displaced supracondylar humerus fracture requires emergent operative management, whether or not surgical exploration of the brachial artery is warranted in a patient with a pulseless pink hand is debatable. Given the lack of consensus, an individualized approach based on clinical findings at initial presentation, including quality of distal perfusion including doppler signal, associated median nerve injury, availability of a surgeon with microvascular skill-set, and access to vigilant post-operative monitoring, combined with an open discussion of the pros and cons of various treatment options with the family is prudent.

METHODS: Herein we outline our management principles, developed with careful consideration of the available literature and informed by practical experience.

RESULTS: We recommend emergent management of pulseless supracondylar fractures, especially those that present with a pulseless white hand or with a dense median nerve palsy, with operative fracture reduction and fixation. In all children presenting with a pulseless supracondylar humerus fracture, the vascular status should be reassessed after adequate fracture reduction and fixation, and in patients with continued signs of abnormal distal perfusion, such as weak or absent Doppler signals or sluggish capillary refill, surgical exploration of the brachial artery with reestablishment of adequate distal flow should be conducted immediately.

CONCLUSION: Much of the existing evidence surrounding the supracondylar humerus fracture associated with a pink, pulseless hand is of low quality. This shortcoming should serve as an impetus for establishment of an international registry of all dysvascular pediatric supracondylar fractures, with adequate documentation of the vascular exam before and after reduction, intra-operative and post-operative management and long term follow-up, to provide optimal management guidelines based on robust evidence.

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