Functional Outcome Following Surgical Treatment of Intra-Articular Distal Humeral Fractures Through a Posterior Approach*

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Background:While surgical repair is considered the standard of care of displaced intra-articular distal humeral fractures, most investigators have assessed its results with use of surgeon-based and/or radiograph-based outcome measures. The purpose of our study was to determine the functional outcome of fixation of displaced intra-articular distal humeral fractures with use of a standardized evaluation methodology consisting of objective testing of muscle strength and use of patient-based questionnaires (both limb-specific and general health-status questionnaires).Methods:We identified twenty-five patients (fourteen male and eleven female), with a mean age of forty-seven years, who had an isolated, closed, displaced, intercondylar, intra-articular fracture of the distal part of the humerus repaired operatively through a posterior approach and fixed with plates on both the medial and the lateral column. All patients returned for follow-up that included recording of a complete history, physical examination, radiographic examination, completion of both a limb-specific questionnaire (Disabilities of the Arm, Shoulder and Hand [DASH]) and a general health-status questionnaire (Short Form-36 [SF-36]), and objective muscle-strength testing.Results:The mean duration of follow-up was thirty-seven months (range, eighteen to seventy-five months). The mean flexion contracture was 25 degrees (range, 5 to 65 degrees), and the mean arc of flexion-extension was 108 degrees (range, 55 to 140 degrees). Significant decreases in mean muscle strength compared with that on the normal side were seen in both elbow flexion measured at 90 degrees (74 percent of normal, p = 0.01) and elbow extension measured at 45 degrees (76 percent of normal, p = 0.01), 90 degrees (74 percent of normal, p = 0.01), and 120 degrees (75 percent of normal, p = 0.01). The mean DASH score was 20 points, indicating mild residual impairment. The SF-36 scores revealed minor but significant decreases in the role-physical and physical function scores (p = 0.01 and 0.03, respectively) but no alteration of the mental component or mean scores. Six patients (24 percent) had a reoperation; three of them had removal of prominent hardware used to fix the site of an olecranon osteotomy.Conclusions:The surgical repair of an intra-articular distal humeral fracture is an effective procedure that reliably maintains general health status as measured by patient-based questionnaires. Our study quantified a decrease in the range of motion and muscle strength of these patients, which may help to explain the mild residual physical impairment detected by the limb-specific outcome measures and physical function components of the general health-status measures.

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