Tag Archives: fracture

New Technology: 3-D Printed Casts For Fractures

I’ve written quite a lot about the promise of medical applications for 3-D printers. Here’s another one for use by trauma professionals.

Look at the good, old-fashioned plaster cast. It’s been around for decades, and serves its purpose well. It’s easy to apply, inexpensive, and reasonably durable.

Then, along came fiberglass. It’s lighter, more durable, and a bit more water-resistant. And not a whole lot more expensive.

But both of these items have drawbacks. They are heavy. It’s best not to get them wet. Their application is very operator dependent. And probably most importantly, they are opaque. This masks any wounds or skin conditions under it for an extended period of time.

Deniz Karasahin, a Turkish student, won a design award for the development of a 3-D printed cast. It used the appearance of cancellous bone as a model, and is aesthetically very cool. A body scanner is used to scan the affected extremity so that the cast can be customized to the patient. The actual cast is printed from plastic, and can be rendered in a variety of colors. It is hinged, and locks together with a simple pin mechanism.

Bottom line: This is an interesting development in 3-D printing. However, it is not for everybody. Cheap plaster and fiberglass casts are very suitable for many patients. But for some, having the ability to inspect the underlying skin or deal with wounds will make this item much more desirable. And keep in mind, this product was developed for aesthetics. The holes can be much larger and still maintain strength and rigidity. So the cast of the future could be mostly holes, making it very light and shower compatible. Many people might be willing to pay a little more for this convenience.

Note: Ignore the LIPUS ultrasound units that can be incorporated into the one in the article. This is still unproven technology and I don’t recommend it.

Reference / photo credit: A’Design Award Competition

Dysphagia and Cervical Spine Injury

Cervical spine injury presents a host of problems, but one of the least appreciated ones is dysphagia. Many clinicians don’t even think of it, but it is a relatively common problem, especially in the elderly. Swallowing difficulties may arise for several reasons:

  • Prevertebral soft tissue swelling may occur with high cervical spine injuries, leading to changes in the architecture of the posterior pharynx
  • Rigid cervical collars, such as the Miami J and Aspen, and halo vests all force the neck into a neutral position. Elderly patients may have a natural kyphosis, and this change in positioning may interfere with swallowing. Try extending your neck by about 30 degrees and see how much more difficult it is to swallow.
  • Patients with cervical fractures more commonly need a tracheostomy for ventilatory support and/or have a head injury, and these are well known culprits in dysphagia

A study in the Jan 2011 Journal of Trauma outlines the dysphagia problem seen with placement of a halo vest. They studied a series of 79 of their patients who were treated with a halo. A full 66% had problems with their swallowing evaluation. This problem was associated with a significantly longer ICU stay and a somewhat longer overall hospital stay.

Bottom line: Suspect dysphagia in all patients with cervical fractures, especially the elderly. Carry out a formal swallowing evaluation, and adjust the collar or halo if appropriate. 

Reference: Swallowing dysfunction in trauma patients with cervical spine fractures treated with halo-vest fixation. J Trauma 70(1):46-50, 2011.

Trauma Mythbusters: NSAIDs And Fracture Healing

Trauma hurts like hell. Over the years, we’ve developed quite a few ways of combating this pain. A number of drug classes have been developed to reduce it. One of the more common non-narcotic drug classes are the NSAIDs. As I’ve mentioned before, every drug has dozens of effects. Drug companies market a particular medication based on one of the predominant effects. All the others are considered side effects.

NSAIDs are not unique; they have lots of side effects as well. In 2003, several papers brought to light possible interactions between these drugs and fracture healing. Specifically, there were questions about these drugs interfering with the healing process and of increasing the number of delayed unions or nonunions. But once again, how convincing were these papers, really?

It would seem to make sense that NSAIDs could interfere with bone healing. This  process relies heavily on the regulation of osteoblast and osteoclast function, which itself is regulated by prostaglandins. Since prostaglandins are synthesized by the COX enzymes, COX inhibitors like the NSAIDs should have the potential to impair this process. Indeed, animal studies in rats and rabbits seem to bear this out.

But as we have seen before, good animal studies don’t always translate well to human experience. Although a study from 2005 suggested that NSAID administration in older patients within 90 days of injury had a higher incidence of fracture nonunion, the study design was not a very good one. It is equally likely that patients who required these drugs in this age group may have been at higher risk for nonunion in the first place.

In fact, there are no large, prospective randomized studies that have explored the effect of short-term or long-term NSAID administration on fracture repair. But there have been several smaller studies that showed absolutely no effect on nonunion with short-term administration of this drug class. Yet the dogma that leads us to avoid giving these drugs persists.

Bottom line: Once again, the animal data is clear but the human data is not. Although there are theoretical concerns about their use, there is not enough solid risk:benefit information to abandon short-term NSAID use in patients who really need them. NSAIDs can and should be prescribed in patients with short-term needs and simple fractures.


  1. Effects of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs on bone formation and soft-tissue healing. J AM Acad Orthop Surg 12:139-43, 2004.
  2. Effect of COX-2 on fracture-healing in the rat femur. J Bone Joint Surg Am 86:116-123, 2004.
  3. Effects of perioperative anti-inflammatory and immunomodulating therapy on surgical wound healing. Pharmacotherapy 25:1566-1591, 2005.
  4. Pharmacological agents and impairment of fracture healing: what is the evidence? Injury 39:384-394, 2008.
  5. High dose nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs compromise spinal fusion. Can J Anaesth 52:506-512, 2005.

What Do You Think? Insert A Subclavian IV Near A Clavicle Fracture?

Someone asked me an interesting question: If I have a patient with a clavicle fracture, is it okay to insert a subclavian line on that side?

Don’t try to look it up. As far as I’ve been able to determine, there is no literature on this simple little question. For most people, the first reaction is “No way!” But think about it a bit, and see if you can come up with any reasons it might be preferred.

Please post your comments, or tweet them out. I’ll answer this pesky one tomorrow.

Fracture Blisters Demystified

Fracture blisters pop up (!) in trauma patients now and then, and nobody seems to know what to do with them. Here’s a primer on dealing with them.

A fracture blister typically occurs near fractures where the skin has little subcutaneous tissue between it and bone. These include elbows, knees, ankles and wrists. They tend to complicate fracture management because they interfere with splinting, casting, and incision planning for open reduction procedures. They can appear anytime within a few hours of injury to 2-3 weeks later.


These blisters are thought to be caused by shearing forces applied at the time of injury. There are two types described, based on their color: clear fluid and hemorrhagic. The difference lies in the level of the shear. Clear fluid blisters have separated within the epidermis, and hemorrhagic blisters separate at the dermal-epidermal junction. The clinical difference is healing time; clear blisters take about 12 days and hemorrhagic blisters heal in about 16 days. 

So should we pop the blisters and operate/splint, or wait for them to heal and then go to surgery? Unfortunately, there’s no great data on this and it usually hinges on the preferences of the orthopaedic surgeon. Waiting delays care an average of 7 days, and longer for tibial plateau and calcaneal fractures. Operating immediately anecdotally increases wound infection rates.

Bottom line: Anticipate fracture blisters by looking at location and severity of mechanism. Try to schedule operative reduction as soon as is practical. And monitor the wound closely to make sure that delayed blisters don’t cause complications due to splinting or casting.