Humerus Fractures

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Anatomy
Fracture Repair
Complications

 

Humerus (upper arm bone) fractures are not common in athletics. Humerus fractures account for approximately 3% of all fractures. Due to the low incidence rate of humerus fractures, Athletic Trainers may not see more than one in their professional career.

Treatment of a humerus fracture begins with a visit to the emergency room to determine the type of fracture.

The physician needs to determine if the fracture is complex or simple. This will help to determine if surgery in needed. Also, the athlete needs to be evaluated for possible nerve or circulation problems due to the fracture. Entrapment of nerves and arteries are highly possible with a humerus fracture. Prior to transport, both the vascular and neural integrity must be assessed and stabilized.

If the fracture is stable, treatment may consist of only sling and swath immobilization for 6 weeks. Some physicians will utilize a “clam-shell” immobilizer if they feel that a sling and swath will not immobilize the fracture sufficiently.

If the fracture is complex in nature, open reduction with internal fixation (ORIF) surgery may be necessary. This can be accomplished with a plate and screws or with an intermedullary (IM) rod or nail. Both methods of internal fixation are very invasive and have potential complications.

ORIF with a plate and screws results in a stabilized fracture that should heal with little complications. Early rehabilitation should concentrate on range of motion exercises for the elbow, shoulder, wrist, and hand. Rehabilitation exercises will progress, as the fracture heals, to include strength training for the shoulder, arm, forearm, wrist and hand.

ORIF with a rod or nail is much more complex. The nail is inserted on the superior aspect of the head of the humerus. To accomplish this, the rotator cuff tendons are split and sewn back together. Rehabilitation is then limited by the healing rate of the rotator cuff tendon. These athletes are rehabilitated like an open rotator cuff repair. Passive motion is started early to prevent adhesive capsulitis of the shoulder, elbow, and wrist. This is progressed to active motion and active strengthening as the cuff heals.

Return to sports participation is allowed after full fracture healing, return of normal range of motion, and return of full strength. This will take 3 to 6 months for this type of injury.

Complications

The humerus is a complex boney structure that is difficult to treat when fractured in a complex fashion. The most common complication of a humerus fracture is impingement of the radial nerve.

The radial nerve runs posteriorly along the humerus in the spiral groove (see diagram). If the humerus is fractured distally or midshaft, the radial nerve can become entrapped in the fracture site or a fracture fragment. This graphic shows the radial nerve becoming entrapped in the fracture more distally. The nerve can also become entrapped when the physician performs a closed reduction of a displaced fracture.

It is estimated that up 18% of all humerus fractures involve damage to the radial nerve. Due to this, many humerus fractures show signs of radial nerve entrapment upon initial examination. Treating physicians will observe the patients who exhibit radial nerve palsy for spontaneous healing.

Radial nerve palsy results in the inability to extend the wrist and fingers as seen in the picture.

Recovery rates are relative to the type of fracture and amount of nerve impingement. In 75% - 90% of the patients treated with a closed reduction, full recovery will occur in 3 to 4 months. This depends upon the amount of nerve damage, presence of scar tissue and swelling. Nerve will heal at the rate of approximately 1 mm per month.

If after 3 - 4 months the nerve palsy is still present, surgical exploration of the nerve may be necessary. This surgery will focus on determining the cause of the nerve impingement.

The physician may order an EMG to determine the amount of nerve damage. This study will show if the nerve is conducting electricity. If the nerve is still functioning, there is hope for a full or partial recovery.

If surgery is required, the doctor will attempt to find the source of the palsy. This could range from the nerve being stretched over the healing bone, entrapment in scar tissue, a partially severed nerve, a completely severed nerve, or entrapment of the nerve in the healed bone. Exact surgical treatment will depend upon the ultimate cause of the entrapment.

 

 

©2000 - 2009 David Edell

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Last Update for AthleticAdvisor.com: 10/24/2009 12:09:35 AM