[Complex injury of the elbow joint]

G Regel, A Seekamp, M Blauth, R Klemme, K Kuhn, H Tscherne
Der Unfallchirurg 1996, 99 (2): 92-99
High-velocity trauma now often results in complex injuries to the upper extremity, and especially the elbow joint. These can lead to both an enormous reduction in the range of motion of the shoulder, elbow and wrist joints, in severe cases with complete loss of upper extremity function. A complex injury is defined as a fracture and/or dislocation of the elbow in association with (1) a serial injury of the upper extremity, (2) a severe soft tissue trauma, or (3) concomitant injury to vessels or nerves. Serial fractures, in particular can lead to enormous problems with treatment and are often associated with special complications. A standardized operative approach therefore seems essential. An analysis of our patient populations was made to compare the frequency of different injury types, develop specific treatment regimens, and document the clinical course. We made a retrospective analysis of patients admitted to our facility between 1981 and 1992, with particular reference to cause of accident, severity of injury (ISS), type of fracture of the upper extremity (according to the AO classification), extent of soft tissue trauma and whether closed or open, and the concomitant injuries (vascular, compartment and nerve lesions). Type and sequence of therapy and any complications were noted, and the clinical course up to consolidation was recorded. The functional result (i.e., ROM, neurology) was observed at primary discharge and 12 weeks, 6 months and 2 years later. In the time period mentioned 224 complex injuries of the elbow region were noted. Often MVAs were the cause of the complex trauma (39% car/30% motorcycle). The average injury severity was scored as 32 (ISS) in these, mostly polytraumatized, patients (68%). The most frequent fracture combination at the elbow region was combined with C2/C3 fractures of the distal humerus (57%) and proximal ulna (43%). A very commonly seen complex injury was the Monteggia equivalent, with fracture dislocation of the proximal ulna. Most (82%) of the injuries at the elbow region were open, and open lesions were similarly frequently seen at the forearm shaft. The most frequent concomitant injuries was were to the nerves (63.5%) and the plexus. A compartment syndrome developed in 23.8%. This complication was frequently seen in multiple trauma patients after primary resuscitation (extensive volume therapy) and in serial fractures with more than three associated lesions. In 67% of these complex injuries a definitive operation was performed as primary treatment (in the first 24 h after injury). Debridement of open fractures and fasciotomy in compartment syndrome of the forearm are standard techniques in the initial care. In serial fractures all concomitant (humerus, forearm, wrist, etc.) fractures were operated on primarily. This primary treatment included ORIF of humeral and forearm fractures in 76%. In patients with multiple injuries (ISS > 30) primary treatment was not possible in 37%, and in these cases transfixation of the elbow joint was performed. Other indications for transfixation were severe comminution of the elbow joint, impossibility of achieving complete stability after ORIF, extensive soft tissue injuries, with healing dependent on short-term immobilization, and finally status following extensive ligamentous reconstruction. The most frequent permanent disturbance was a persisting nerve lesion in our patients. A significantly reduced range of motion (30% deficit flexion/extension) was mostly seen at the elbow (17%), most frequently associated with serial fractures (> 3 associated injuries) and with severe semicircular soft tissue trauma. The most severe injury in combined trauma of the upper extremity is a serial fracture in the elbow region. Such fractures are often associated with vascular and nerve lesions. Even with primary fracture stabilization and early soft tissue management these often end with significant functional deficits.(ABSTRACT TRUNCATED)

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