Background: Complex fractures of the distal part of the humerus can be difficult to characterize on plain radiographs and two-dimensional computed tomography scans. We tested the hypothesis that three-dimensional reconstructions of computed tomography scans improve the reliability and accuracy of fracture characterization, classification, and treatment decisions.
Methods: Five independent observers evaluated thirty consecutive intra-articular fractures of the distal part of the humerus for the presence of five fracture characteristics: a fracture line in the coronal plane; articular comminution; metaphyseal comminution; the presence of separate, entirely articular fragments; and impaction of the articular surface. Fractures were also classified according to the AO/ASIF Comprehensive Classification of Fractures and the classification system of Mehne and Matta. Two rounds of evaluation were performed and then compared. Initially, a combination of plain radiographs and two-dimensional computed tomography scans (2D) were evaluated, and then, two weeks later, a combination of radiographs, two-dimensional computed tomography scans, and three-dimensional reconstructions of computed tomography scans (3D) were assessed.
Results: Three-dimensional computed tomography improved both the intraobserver and the interobserver reliability of the AO classification system and the Mehne and Matta classification system. Three-dimensional computed tomography reconstructions also improved the intraobserver agreement for all fracture characteristics, from moderate (average kappa [κ2D] = 0.554) to substantial agreement (κ3D = 0.793). The addition of three-dimensional images had limited influence on the interobserver reliability and diagnostic characteristics (sensitivity, specificity, and accuracy) for the recognition of specific fracture characteristics. Three-dimensional computed tomography images improved intraobserver agreement (κ2D = 0.62 compared with κ3D = 0.75) but not interobserver agreement (κ2D = 0.24 compared with κ3D = 0.28) for treatment decisions.
Conclusions: Three-dimensional reconstructions improve the reliability, but not the accuracy, of fracture classification and characterization. The influence of three-dimensional computed tomography was much more notable for intraobserver comparisons than for interobserver comparisons, suggesting that different observers see different things in the scans—most likely a reflection of the training, knowledge, and experience of the observer with regard to these relatively uncommon and complex injuries.
Clinical Relevance: In our opinion, three-dimensional computed tomography is helpful for preoperative planning of the operative treatment of fractures of the distal part of the humerus.