Not All Gustilo Type IIIB Fractures Are Created Equal: Arterial Injury Impacts Limb Salvage Outcomes

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Open tibia fractures are commonly stratified by the Gustilo classification, an orthopedic grading system that does not incorporate the presence of arterial injury when limb perfusion is intact. In the authors’ experience, however, the presence of arterial injury appears to negatively impact microsurgical outcomes.


In a retrospective review of 806 lower extremity reconstructions between 1979 and 2016, 361 soft-tissue flaps performed for Gustilo type IIIB/C coverage met inclusion criteria. Patient demographics, flap characteristics, and outcomes were analyzed.


Most patients suffered type IIIB [n = 332 (91.9 percent)] injuries; 29 (8.0 percent) had type IIIC injuries. Preoperative angiography [n = 243 (67.3 percent)] demonstrated arterial injury in 126 (51.8 percent); 27 arterial injuries were identified intraoperatively; and the overall incidence was 153 of 361 (42.4 percent). Complications occurred in 143 flaps (39.6 percent) and included 37 partial losses (10.2 percent) and 31 total losses (8.6 percent). Injured recipient arteries [n = 62 (17.2 percent)] had more complications (p = 0.004); specifically, increased take-backs (p = 0.009). Decreasing vessel runoff increased the risk of complications (p = 0.025), take-backs (p = 0.007), and total flap failures (p = 0.024) accordingly. Specifically, among grade IIIB injuries, controlling for age, sex, time since injury, and vein number, single-vessel runoff was associated with higher rates of complications (relative risk, 3.07; p = 0.012), take-backs (relative risk, 3.43; p = 0.013), and total flap failures (relative risk, 4.80; p = 0.010) compared with three-vessel runoff.


Arterial injury was common among Gustilo type IIIB patients and correlated with increased reconstructive complications. Nonischemic arterial injury appears to negatively impact reconstructive outcomes and should be accounted for when considering free tissue transfer for lower extremity salvage. The authors propose a 3-2-1 modification of the Gustilo type IIIB classification to incorporate degree of arterial injury, as it appears to add prognostic value and certainly influences the reconstructive plan.


Risk, IV.

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