Summer Sideliners

Common summer injuries of the hand, wrist and elbow

As we hike, bike, raft and climb our way through summer adventure, mishaps are bound to happen.  Some of the most common we see include wrist fractures, tennis elbow syndrome and cuts and lacerations to the hand.

Recognizing and treating mishaps that may occur while maximizing these brief few summer months can make a difference in how ready we are for all that awaits us in the fall.

Wrist Fractures

The wrist is susceptible to injury, often used as a first line of defense to break a fall, shield us from impact and soften a blow.  The wrist is comprised of eight small carpal bones, two forearm bones (radius and ulna) and four articulations or joints – which allow the wrist to bend and straighten, move from side-to-side and twist with a broad range of motion.  A force to the hand and wrist may result in a fracture of any one or several of these bones.  While a fracture to one of the smaller carpal bones may only be visible on x-ray, more common distal radius fractures are usually evident – crooked or deformed in appearance.  A wrist fracture may cause pain and swelling and should be immediately addressed.

Tennis Elbow Syndrome (Lateral Epicondylitis)

Though named for the sport frequently causing the condition in tennis players, Tennis Elbow Syndrome is in fact most often caused by everyday activity and diagnosed in those who have never played tennis.  Affecting the outside (lateral) portion of the elbow, tennis elbow syndrome is considered an “overuse” condition.  It is the result of strain placed on the muscles and tendons that attach to the bone.  Also caused by trauma, tennis elbow syndrome can cause pain with gripping, lifting and grasping.

Cuts and Lacerations

Cuts and lacerations to the hand are very common during the summer months as our hands are integral in most outdoor activity and projects. Tendon lacerations are also often the result of trauma to the hand or fingers.  Tendon lacerations may affect either the flexor or extensor tendons.  These types of lacerations often also result in other deep structure damage and require surgical repair.  The cut ends of a tendon must be brought back together in order for the cells inside the tendon to begin the healing/repair process.  Preventing infection in an open wound is also a primary concern with these types of injuries.

 

Forearm Fractures

Understanding Pediatric and Adult Forearm Fractures

Forearm fractures are common upper extremity fractures in kids and adults alike, as they compose the part of the arm which is integral in everyday activities, sports and hobbies – and frequently utilized to slow the force of an impact or fall.

Fracture of one of the forearm bones

Forearm bones and illustration of a forearm fracture.

The forearm bones are known as the ulna and the radius.  They run parallel to one another and connect the wrist joint (distal end) to the elbow joint (proximal end).

A forearm fracture can affect one or both forearm bones.  In fact, the impact one forearm bone sustains often forces it into the other causing both to break.

When a forearm fracture occurs, the type of break is carefully assessed using both a physical examination and x-rays.  It is then identified as a fracture involving either the proximal, middle or distal “shaft.”

Some of the common types of forearm fractures include:

  • Radial Head Fractures
  • Olecranon Fractures
  • Distal Radius Fractures (wrist fracture)
  • Radial Shaft Fractures,
  • Ulnar Shaft Fractures
Both bone forearm fracture in a young football player

An x-ray of a both bone forearm fracture in an adolescent football player.

The fracture is identified based on a set of criteria and the location on the bone.  If both the radius and the ulna are affected, it is known as a “both bone forearm fracture.”

If the fracture does not pierce through the skin it is considered a simple or closed fracture.  One that pierces through the skin is considered a complex or open fracture.

Forearm Fractures in Children

Forearm fractures represent nearly half of all childhood fractures – most of those occurring at the distal, or wrist end of the radius. These fractures are classified by the area of the bone affected, whether it is stable or displaced, how clean the break and whether it is partial or complete across the bone.

The classifications include:

  • Torus fracture, also known as a “buckle” fracture.  It results when the top layer of bone on one side compresses upon a harsh impact.  It is considered a stable fracture.
  • Metaphyseal fracture.  This type of fracture affects the upper or lower shaft of the bone without affecting the growth plate.
  • Greenstick fracture.  This type of fracture extends through part of the bone, causing it to bend on the other side.
  • Galeazzi fracture.  This impact is often a displaced fracture disrupting the radius and also the wrist joint where the radius and ulna come together at the wrist.
  • Monteggia fracture.  This fracture usually involves the ulna shaft and disrupts the elbow joint where the radius dislocates requiring urgent care.
  • Growth plate fracture. This type of fracture occurs across the growth plate.

(Fracture classifications source:  American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons)

Fractures in children are different from those in adults, because their bones are still growing.  As a result, they have more cartilage and collagen resulting in a more “pliable” bone less subject to a break – or one less severe as an adult might sustain with the same impact.  In fact, many fractures in children may be so subtle they are difficult to detect on an x-ray and require an orthopedic specialist to assess.  A fracture in a child heals rapidly.  So, it is important that it is addressed quickly and properly set before it heals in improper alignment – causing other long term problems.

Also unique in children is the impact a fracture could have on their growth plates.  Depending on the extent of a fracture, the growth and function of the child’s limb could be negatively impacted as a result.

Adult Forearm Fractures

The same fracture classifications applied to those in children, with the exception of growth plate and greenstick fractures, apply to those in adults.  The adult bone is less “pliable” than that of a child’s and has a higher tensile strength, which can result in a more serious break.

Adults suffering from osteoporosis are particularly subject to breaks from an impact or activity seemingly unlikely to inflict such damage.

Treatment

Fracture treatment depends on the severity of the break and any other soft tissue damage that may have occurred as a result.  The right treatment will depend on the fracture, age and lifestyle of the patient – and may be nonsurgical or surgical with internal fixation.

All treatment includes hand therapy for the best results and most rapid return to activity.

Playing with an Injury

When is it Okay to Return to Play?

As fall sports heat up, we begin to see a lot of injuries.  The first question players ask after we confirm their injury is, “how soon before I can play again?

Whether it’s a junior high schooler, college athlete or professional player, this question is asked with the same passion and underlying conviction to do whatever it takes to get back in as soon as possible.  This is their sport and their heart is all in – despite the injured limb and challenge it now presents.

Kinkaid Team Captain and outside linebacker, Harris Green, not slowed by forearm fracture

As an orthopedic physician who wants to ensure the best outcome in their recovery and a team doctor who understands this drive distinct in athletes, it’s important to develop the right treatment plan – some of which might entail permission for immediate return to play.

Green back in the game as fracture heals

While this may seem counterintuitive, certain hand and upper extremity fractures once stabilized and placed in a cast are fine for an immediate resumption of play.  This is particularly true of the younger athlete.  Some of the types of fractures allowing athletes to return quickly back to the game despite their cast or splint include certain finger and distal radius fractures and ligament sprains.

While the position on a team will impact the enthusiasm in our recommendation to allow such return to play – linemen with the capability to restrict their hands in a cast verses a receiver or running back more fully engaging their injured limb – many are as capable to play their position with their injury as they were before.

The type of injury is also a determination – stabilized fractures are more likely to be considered for immediate return to play than ligament or tendon tears.

Now, there are some risks for further damage if the injured limb is hit in such a way and the inflexibility of the cast places other vulnerabilities on the uncasted portion of the limb.  Other risks include refracture, retear of a tendon or displacement of a fracture.

But, the only way to truly avoid further injury is to sit out of the game until the injury is completely healed. And this is rarely an option for an athlete.

So, we ensure that our patients know everything upfront.  And we give them the tools to keep their injured limb as strong as possible – regardless of the decision they make.   Continuing to keep the injured limb strong by exercising the muscles and joints around the injury, in conjunction with cardiovascular exercise for overall physical well-being….is key.  We remain very involved and ready to make any readjustments we need to the treatment.

The Different Types of Fractures

A fracture is a break in the bone. Within the hand and upper extremity it can occur anywhere from the fingertip to the shoulder.

Among the most common fractures and dislocations of the hand and upper extremity include:

  • Finger Fractures
  • Distal Radius Fractures (also called Colles Fracture)
  • Scaphoid Fractures
  • Forearm Fractures
  • Clavicle Fractures (collar bone)

There are a number of different types of fractures – partial or complete, simple or compound, clean or shattered …each with their own classifications.  It is important to first define the type of fracture and its severity before determining the most effective treatment plan.

Fractures are defined by the severity of the break and the impact it imposes to surrounding tissue. Some fractures known as partial fractures may only cause a slight crack in the bone, while others may result in a complete break or shattered bone.

A fracture may also be either open or compound, which is a fracture that pierces through the skin creating an open wound.  A closed or “simple” fracture is a fracture that does not break through the skin.

Other classifications that help determine the best treatment plan for your type of fracture include:

  • Transverse Fracture – A fracture that goes across the bone and is situated at a right angle to the long axis of the bone.
  • Greenstick Fracture – A fracture situated on only one side of the bone, causing a bend but not a complete break. These are most commonly seen in children with more “pliable” bones.
  • Comminuted Fracture – A fracture that results in three or more bone fragments.
  • Intra-articular Fracture – A fracture with joint involvement.

Depending on the severity of the fracture, treatment may entail the non surgical realignment of the bone and casting, also referred to as closed reduction. Or surgical repair utilizing fixation support may be indicated.

Wrist Fracture – Distal Radius Fractures Among the Most Common Wrist Fractures

X-ray of a Distal Radius Fracture, also known as a Colles Fracture

One of the most common hand and upper extremity fractures we see is a distal radius fracture.  This is because of its position at the end of the forearm bone where it meets the wrist and the essential involvement of our hands and wrist in everyday activities and sports.  Our hands and wrists are also the first line of defense in a trauma – used as a shield to soften the blow of a harsh impact or to break a fall.

There are many opportunities to injure the distal radius.

The radius is the larger of the two bones located in the forearm. “Distal” radius refers to the lower end of this bone where it meets the wrist. The other forearm bone is the ulna, and together these two bones form the radioulnar joint.

Also called a “Colles” fracture for the anatomist who first described it, a distal radius fracture is common among those involved in contact sports as well as those suffering from osteoporosis.  It is occasionally misdiagnosed as a sprain and improperly treated – which could eventually lead to joint instability and osteoarthritis.

Some of the symptoms associated with a distal radius fracture include:

  • Swelling
  • Weakness and reduced range of motion
  • Persistent pain
  • Possible numbness
  • Deformity

Once identified, initial treatment will depend on the severity of the fracture, other soft tissue damage, and the type of break (simple or complex).  A wrist fracture may be treated non surgically by manipulating the broken sections back into place (closed reduction) and stabilizing the wrist with a splint.  More severe breaks may require surgical repair.

Next month’s blog will discuss how fractures are categorized and how they determine the treatment selected.