The treatment of these fractures vary with type of fracture, age of the patient, associated soft tissue injury and demand of the patients. While fractures in younger patients demand an aggressive approach, older patients with lesser demand have a high acceptability of conservative treatment.
Distal radius fractures have peaks of occurrence in children ages 5 to 14 years and adults >50 years.
In elderly patients, it is an insufficiency fracture while in younger males it is a traumatic injury.
Distal radius fracture is the most common osteoporotic fractures.
Relevant Anatomy of Distal Radius
[read more about anatomy of radius bone]
Distally, the radial shaft expands to form a rectangular end. The lateral side projects distally as the styloid process. In the medial surface, there is a concavity, called the ulnar notch, which articulates with the head of ulna, forming the distal radioulnar joint.
The distal surface of the radius has two facets, for articulation with the scaphoid and lunate carpal bones. This makes up the wrist joint.
The distal radius is made up of metaphysis and three articular surfaces
- Laterally the scaphoid facet
- Medially, the lunate facet
- Sigmoid notch for distal radio ulnar joint
The ulna plays an important part of the ligamentous integrity of the distal radio-ulnar joint and triangular fibrocartilage. The metaphysis is flared distally in both the AP and the lateral planes. There is a thin cortical bone on dorsal and radial aspect making the fractures typically collapse dorsoradially. The bone with the greatest trabecular density lies in the palmar ulnar cortex.
Distally, the radius has a somewhat trapezoidal shape. The radial styloid rotates palmarly 15 degrees off the axis of the radius.
The palmar ulnar part is often referred to as the keystone of the radius. It serves as the attachment for the palmar distal radioulnar ligaments and also the stout radiolunate ligament. Displacement of this fragment is associated with palmar displacement of the carpus and also with loss of forearm rotation.
Attachements to Distal Radius
- The brachioradialis inserts on the lowest part of the lateral surface just above the styloid process.
- The pronator quadratus is inserted into the lower part of the anterior surface and into the triangular area on the medial side of the lower end.
- The articular capsule of the wrist joint is attached to the anterior and posterior margins of the inferior articular surface.
- The extensor retinaculum is attached to the lower part of the anterior border.
- The interosseus membrane is attached to the lower three-fourths of the interosseus border.
- The articular disc of the inferior radioulnar joint is attached to the lower border of the ulnar notch
The palmar extrinsic ligaments are relied on to reduce the components of a fracture using closed methods.
The palmar ligaments are stronger than the thinner dorsal ligaments and more vertically oriented than dorsal ligaments. Any force applied would make palmar ligaments taut before the dorsal ligaments bringing the palmar cortex to length before the dorsal cortex.
The wrist is said to be consisted of three distinct columns, each of which is subjected to different forces and must be addressed as discrete elements.
- Columns of Wrist
The radial column consists of the scaphoid fossa and the radial styloid. It is best stabilized by buttressing the lateral cortex.
The intermediate column consists of the lunate fossa and the sigmoid notch of the radius. It is critical for both articular congruity and distal radioulnar function.
The ulnar column consists of the ulna styloid with TFCC and the ulnocarpal ligaments.
Radial inclination is also termed as radial angle.
This measurement is taken in posteroanterior radiograph of the wrist.
Radial inclination represents the angle between one line connecting the radial styloid tip and the ulnar aspect of the distal radius and a second line perpendicular to the longitudinal axis of the radius.
- Radial Inclination
The radial inclination ranges between 21° and 25°. Radial inclination value would change in fractures of articular surface.
Loss of radial inclination will increase the load across the lunate. It is also called radial height.
Radial length is measured on the postreoanterior radiograph. It is measured as the distance between following two lines.
First line is drawn perpendicular to the long axis of the radius passing through the distal tip of the radial styloid.
Second line is along the articular surface of radius.The average value of this measurement averages 10-13 mm.
Presentation of Distal Radius Fracture
There is often a history of fall on the hand of the involved side. The patient presents with a wrist deformity and swelling of the wrist.
This accounts for the radially deviation and dorsal angulation is found in a number of cases [An example of typical Colle’s fracture].
Because of dorsal angulation, the palmar portion [on the side of the palm] of the fragment becomes prominent, it might result in displacement of median nerve palmarward.
The acute shortening of the radius relative to the ulna may also cause ulna to cause wound on the palmar side.
Other parts of the limb that required to be seen in examination are ipsilateral shoulder and elbow.
Often the fracture may be associated with fractures of either the radial head or supracondylar humerus of the same limb. When associated with these fractures, it indicates a high energy trauma and may pose rehabilitation challenges
A thorough evaluation of the extrinsic flexor and extensors is done, particularly extensor pollicis longus, which may be injured acutely at Lister’s tubercle or may present with a late spontaneous rupture.
Median nerve injury is a common cause of functional impairment and chronic pain and should be carefully. An abnormal sensory examination may occur due to direct contusion, mechanical deformation of the nerve and abnormal pressure within the carpal tunnel.
Classification of Distal Radius Fractures
Gartland and Werle Distal Radius Fracture Classification
A distal radius fracture classification system that assessed the three basic components of these injuries
- Metaphyseal comminution
- Intra-articular extension
- Displacement of the fragments.
Fractures are classified into four groups
Simple Colles’ fracture with no involvement of the radial articular surfaces
Comminuted Colles’ fractures with intra-articular extension without displacement
Comminuted Colles’ fractures with intra-articular extension with displacement
Frykman Distal Radius Fracture Classification
It included individual involvement of the radiocarpal and radioulnar joints-
- Type I: Extra-articular fracture
- Type II: Extra-articular fracture with ulnar styloid fracture
- Type III: Radiocarpal articular involvement
- Type IV: Radiocarpal involvement with ulnar styloid fracture
- Type V: Radioulnar involvement
- Type VI: Radioulnar involvement with ulnar styloid fracture
- Type VII: Radioulnar and radiocarpal involvement
- Type VIII: Radioulnar and radiocarpal involvement with ulnar styloid fracture
AO Distal Radius Fracture Classification
Fractuers are classified with the increasing severity of the bony injury:
- Type A: Extra-articular fracture. Subgroups are based upon angulation and comminution
- Type B: Partial articular fracture. Subgroups are based upon lateral (radial styloid) palmar or dorsal fragments
- Type C: Complete articular. Subgroups are based on the articular surface’s degree of comminution and the metaphysis
Fernandez Distal Radius Fracture Classification
Fernandez proposed a mechanism-based classification system. It also addressed the potential for ligamentous injury
Shearing fractures requiring reduction and often buttressing of the articular segment.
Compression of the articular surface without the characteristic fragmentation; also includes the potential for significant interosseous ligament injury.
Avulsion fractures or radiocarpal fracture dislocations.
Combined injuries with significant soft tissue involvement due to the high-energy nature of these fractures.
There is also a separate grouping of the possible associated distal radioulnar joint lesions.
Initial investigation is x-ray of the wrist. The views include anteroposterior, lateral and pronator oblique views.
If fracture is extra-articular [ Does not involve the joint] radial shortening and comminution is noted. In addition if present, location of fracture of ulnar styloid is noted (tip/waist/base).
In case of intra-articular fractures any impacted fragment including depression of the lunate facet is noted [articular surface of distal end radius for lunate bone] is looked for. Interruption of the proximal carpal row, if any would be visible on this view.
For intra-articular fractures depression of the palmar lunate facet and/or depression of the central fragment, and the gap between palmar and dorsal fragments is noted.
Oblique views are done for better assessment of radial comminution in extra articular fractures or to look for radial styloid split/depression and depression of the dorsal lunate facet.
Tilted Lateral View
It is useful to assess any residual depression of the palmar lunate facet. It is also done in suspected possible hardware penetration into the articular surface.
Traction is applied on the fingers either manually or with finger traps and anteroposterior and lateral views are taken . These x-rays are taken to assess the effectiveness of reduction and external fixation. If not effective then direct reduction and internal fixation would be required.
Proximal row congruity can be judged. If it is not congruent, it indicates interosseous ligament injury.
AP and Lateral Views of Opposite Wrist
To assess the patient’s normal ulnar variance and scapholunate angle [formed by intersection of longitudinal axes of scaphoid & lunate].
Magnetic resonance imaging
MRI is useful in assessment of soft tissue injuries particularly intercarpal ligament injury or triangular fibrocartilage complex tears are well visualized with the use of a fine wrist coil.
Treatment of Distal Radius Fracture
The ultimate treatment goal in fractures of distal radius is a wrist that has sufficient pain-free motion and stability to permit vocational and avocational activities without the propensity for future degenerative changes.
There are certain radiological parameters that would help to achieve these goals
Congruity of radiocarpal joint remains the most significant radiological parameter for both functional outcome and future degenerative changes.
There is no universal agreement though on how much step in articular step is acceptable because studies have documented increase in stress with step-offs as small as 1 mm. Other studies report worsening of functional outcome if the step is beyond 2mm.
The change in palmar tilt increases the tension on the palmar and dorsal radioulnar ligaments resulting in an increased load required for forearm rotation. Acceptable limit is up to neutralization of the tilt.
Studies have indicated a strong correlation between radial length and loss of strength. More than 2 mm of radial shortening has been reported to result in symptomatic loss of strength. Acceptable radial length is within 2 to 3 mm of the contralateral wrist.
A correlation between decrease in radial inclination and decreased grip strength has been documented and there is increased risk of degenerative changes.Less than 5 degrees of loss is acceptable.
This indicates ligamentous injuries. Some degree of lateral scapholunate angle widening due to palmar flexion of the scaphoid may be acceptable, it appears that a dorsiflexed lunate is associated with a worse outcome.
There is as yet no defined threshold for this angle; however, greater than 25 degrees has been correlated with a worse outcome .
Non Operative Treatment of Distal Radius Fractures
Now the treatment with closed reduction and cast immobilization is indicated in stable fractures in which the goals of treatment can be expected to be achieved and patients with low functional demands.
A fracture is likely to be unstable if there is concomitant ligamentous injury, greater initial displacement, metaphyseal comminution and displacement after closed treatment
Nonoperative treatment consists of closed reduction and cast application.
Closed Reduction Technique In Distal Radius Fracture
Closed reduction and cast immobilization is an important method of treatment of distal radius fracture.
Any successful reduction would require pain relief to overcome muscle spasm.
Most of the reductions in distal radius can be done in Hematoma Block supplemented with sedation or Bier block provides adequate anesthesia in most settings. Few patients may need general anaesthesia.
Longitudinal traction is applied on the affected limb while assistant provides countertraction. After that direct pressure is applied on the displaced radial metaphyseal fragment for reduction.
Whenever possible, reduction and cast application should be done under C-arm image intensifier control so that reduction can be confirmed. Otherwise reduction should be confirmed using plain x-rays after the maneuver.
The cast provides a dorsal buttress to prevent collapse. Excessive palmar flexion of the radius should be avoided to avoid risk of acute carpal tunnel syndrome. Some authors have suggested placing the radioulnar joint in supination but there is no consensus yet.
Postreduction x-rays are obtained at 7, 14, and 21 days. The postreduction x-rays must be compared with the initial postreduction x-rays to accurately determine redisplacement.
Operative Treatment In Distal Radius Fractures
Following are the indications for surgical treatment of distal radius fractures.
– Comminuted displaced intra-articular fracture
– Open fractures
– Associated carpal fractures
– Associated neurovascular injury or tendon injury
– Failed conservative treatment
– Bilateral fractures
– Impaired opposite limb
When patient of distal radius fracture is a candidate for operative treatment, there are many surgical options to consider depending on injury and patient characteristics.
The optimal timing of the surgical intervention depends on the associated soft tissue factors and the type of surgical procedure
When fracture is acute, the fracture should be reduced by closed reduction and the surgery should be carriedwhen the swelling is sufficiently reduced. In case of minimal swelling, the surgery can be done immediately.
For arthroscopically assisted reduction and stabilization, the operative treatment is delayed for at least 3 to 5 days.
Following surgical options can be considered in surgical treatment of distal radius fracture
Pins and Plaster
The procedure involves closed reduction of the fracture and fixation of the fragments using Kwires followed by plaster application. It is minimally invasive and inexpensive.
The construct however cannot prevent the collapse of the fragments and need for plaster cast application is considered as disadvantage.
Percutaneous pinning and plaster immobilization are unable to neutralize the axial forces. External fixation allows distraction across the radiocarpal joint and directly neutralizes axial load.
External fixation alone may not be sufficiently rigid to prevent some degree of collapse and a loss of palmar tilt as good as an internal fixation. But they provide good results with adjunctive fixation like supplemental bone grafts or Kwire fixation.
Combined External Internal Fixation
Arthroscopically Assisted Reduction and External Fixation of Intra-Articular Fractures
Role of arthroscop and its superiority over the conventional techniques has not been established yet and the indications of type of fractures best suited for arthroscopically assisted reduction and external fixation are also controversial.
Fractures that may benefit most from adjunctive arthroscopy are
- Complex articular fractures without metaphyseal comminution
- Fractures with evidence of substantial interosseous ligament or triangular fibrocartilage injury but without a large ulnar styloid fragment
The procedure is usually performed between 3 and 15 days postinjury to allow healing of rents in the capsule to avoid extravasation of irrigation fluid.
Open Reduction and Internal Fixation
Early range of motion of the joint, and avoidance of constrictive dressings or casts are major advantages of the internal fixation but the technique is considered difficult and a number of soft tissue complications have been noted with the use of plate fixation.
The plate can be either applied on dorsal or palmar aspect of radius.
When applied on dorsal aspect, the fixation provides buttress against collapse and has the advantages of avoiding neurovascular injury [NV bundle is on palmar side].
However, extensor tendon ruptures due to prominent hardware and palmar displacement of the distal fragment has been noted.
Other injuries around the wrist injuries with fracture of distal radius are
- Radial styloid fractures
- Isolated volar lip fractures
- Isolated volar lip fractures
- Ulnar styloid fractures
Each of this injury indicates a high energy injury to the wrist.
Injuries of Distal Radius and Ulna Other Than Distal Radius Fracture
Radial Styloid Fractures
These fractures are associated scapholunate ligament injuries. Treatment should include stabilization of the radial styloid with a cannulated screw or K-wires may be used to stabilize the fracture.
Volar Lip Injuries
The management of volar lip injuries to the radius is dependent on fragment size. If fragment is small, it indicates a distal radioulnar joint injury and stabilization of distal radioulnar joint shoud be carried out.
Larger fragments indicate true palmar radiocarpal instability. These fragments represent the insertions of the volar extrinsic ligaments and recent studies have better results with repair than excision.
Dorsal Lip Injuries
This indicates intercarpal ligament injuries most common being avulsion of the dorsal radiolunotriquetral ligament.
External fixation and percutaneous kwires may be used for the treatment.
Combined injuries are high energy injuries with extensive comminution or/and significant soft tissue injuries.
Simple articular fractures with diaphyseal extension are best managed with a palmar plate.
With distal comminution, hybrid fixation and grafting may be necessary.
Get more stuff on Musculoskeltal Health
Subscribe to our Newsletter and get latest publications on Musculoskeletal Health your email inbox.
Thank you for subscribing.