Outcomes following operative and non-operative management of humeral midshaft fractures: a prospective, observational cohort study of 47 patients

Eur J Trauma Emerg Surg. 2011 Jun;37(3):287-96. doi: 10.1007/s00068-011-0099-0. Epub 2011 Apr 1.


Background: Although the non-operative management of closed humeral midshaft fractures has been advocated for years, the increasing popularity of operative intervention has left the optimal treatment choice unclear.

Objective: To compare the outcomes of operative and non-operative treatment of traumatic closed humeral midshaft fractures in adult patients.

Methods: A multicentre prospective comparative cohort study across 20 centres was conducted. Patients with AO type 12 A2, A3 and B2 fractures were treated with a functional brace or a retrograde-inserted unreamed humeral nail. Follow-up measurements were taken at 6, 12 and 52 weeks after the injury. The primary outcome was fracture healing after 1 year. Secondary outcomes included sub-items of the Constant score, general patient satisfaction, complications and cost-effectiveness parameters. Functions of the uninjured extremity were used as reference parameters. Intention-to-treat analysis was applied with the use of t-tests, Fisher's exact tests, Mann-Whitney U-tests and adjusted analysis of variance (ANOVA).

Results: Forty-seven patients were included. The patient sample consisted of 23 women and 24 men, with a mean age of 52.7 years (range 17-86 years). Of the 47 cases, 14 were treated non-operatively and 33 operatively. The follow-up rate at 1 year was 81%. After 1 year, 11 fractures (100%) healed in the non-operative group and at least 24 fractures (≥89%) healed in the operative group [1 non-union patient (4%) and no data for 2 patients (7%)]. There were no significant differences in pain, range of motion (ROM) of the shoulder and elbow, and return to work after 6 weeks, 12 weeks and 1 year. Although operatively treated patients showed significantly greater shoulder abduction strength (p = 0.036), elbow flexion strength (p = 0.021), functional hand positioning (p = 0.008) and return to recreational activities (p = 0.043) after 6 weeks, no statistically significant differences existed in any outcome measure at the 1-year follow-up.

Conclusions: Our findings indicate that the non-operative management of humeral midshaft fractures can be expected to have similar functional outcomes and patient satisfaction at 1 year, despite an early benefit to operative treatment. If no radiological evidence of fracture healing exists in non-operatively treated patients during early follow-up, a switch to surgical treatment results in good functional outcomes and patient satisfaction.