Distal humerus fractures in patients over 65: complications

Orthop Traumatol Surg Res. 2013 Dec;99(8):909-13. doi: 10.1016/j.otsr.2013.10.002. Epub 2013 Oct 30.


Introduction: Fractures of the distal humerus in patients over the age of 65 remain a therapeutic challenge. Treatment options include conservative treatment, internal fixation or total elbow arthroplasty. The complications of these different treatment options were evaluated in a multicentre study.

Materials and methods: Four hundred and ninety-seven medical records were evaluated. A retrospective study was performed in 410 cases: 34 received conservative treatment, 289 internal fixation and 87 underwent total elbow arthroplasty. A prospective study was performed in 87 cases: 22 received conservative treatment, 53 internal fixation, and 12 underwent total elbow arthroplasty. Patients were evaluated after at least 6 months follow-up.

Results: The rate of complications was 30% in the retrospective study and 29% in the prospective study. The rate of complications in the conservative treatment group was 60%, and the main complication was essentially malunion. The rate of complications was 44% in the internal fixation group and included neuropathies, mechanical failure or wound dehiscence. Although complications only developed in 23% of total elbow arthroplasties, they were often more severe than those following other treatments.

Discussion: Complications develop in one out of three patients over 65 with distal humerus fractures. Three main types of complications were identified. Neuropathies especially of the ulnar nerve, especially during arthroplasty, must always be identified, the nerve requiring isolation and transposition. Bone complications, due principally to mechanical failure, were found following internal fixation. Despite technical progress, care must be taken not to favor excessive utilization of this treatment option in complex fractures on fragile bone. Although there were relatively fewer complications with total elbow arthroplasty they were more difficult to treat. Ossifications were frequent whatever the surgical option and can jeopardize the functional outcome.

Keywords: Distal fracture of the Humerus; Internal fixation; Locking plate; Plate.

Publication types

  • Multicenter Study

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Arthroplasty, Replacement, Elbow* / adverse effects
  • Decompression, Surgical
  • Elbow Joint / injuries*
  • Elbow Joint / surgery*
  • Female
  • Fracture Fixation / adverse effects*
  • Fracture Fixation, Internal / adverse effects
  • Humans
  • Intra-Articular Fractures / surgery*
  • Male
  • Prospective Studies
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Ulnar Neuropathies / etiology
  • Ulnar Neuropathies / prevention & control