Splints and Bracing at the Elbow

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CHAPTER 11 Splints and Bracing at the Elbow

STATIC AND PROTECTIVE SPLINTS

Prophylactic bracing is occasionally employed at the elbow, typically to avoid excessive extension in the athlete.9 Further static splinting for the elbow is commonly used for short periods as a protective measure after injury or surgery. Previously used commonly in those with rheumatoid arthritis, largely because of the effectiveness of disease remitting agents, this type of splinting is uncommonly indicated today (Fig. 11-1).

For the unstable elbow a hinged splint is used (Fig. 11-2). By initially locking the hinge, the same device can be used as a resting static splint; some designs allow conversion to a movable stabilizing device. Hinged splints allow active motion and are employed primarily for ligament healing. Occasionally, a hinged brace is prescribed for the resected elbow, but compliance is variable, and I rarely use this type of device.

ELBOW STIFFNESS

The most common complication of elbow injury, and even in some arthritic conditions, is stiffness. The most important means of avoiding this after a fracture is rigid fixation accompanied by early motion of the joint (see Chapter 22). After fracture dislocation, it has been demonstrated that immobilization lasting for more than 4 weeks resulted in less satisfactory outcome in each patient,2 and despite the recognized value of early motion after injury or surgery stiffness of the elbow remains a common problem in the orthopedic practice. Unfortunately, in the author’s experience the use of aggressive physical therapy to address post-traumatic stiffness is not always successful and, in fact, as often as not, makes the contracture worse. This justifies the use of splinting in this clinical setting, but to understand the rationale of splinting for this condition, it is necessary to understand the physiology of the process.

PATHOLOGY OF ELBOW CONTRACTURE

The exact reason that the elbow is so prone to joint contracture is not known with certainty. What is recognized is that the elbow is one of the most congruous joints in the body (see Chapter 2). Normally, the capsule is translucent, but with insult, it undergoes a marked hypertrophy and extensive cross-linking of the fibrils, as demonstrated on scanning electron microscopy (Fig. 11-3). In some instances, a severe elbow contracture has been observed after trivial insult or such as “strain” without fracture or dislocation. Under these circumstances, the elbow may contract rapidly, often within 2 to 3 weeks. An explanation of the rapid development of elbow contracture may be provided by the basic investigations on wound contracture. Experimental data demonstrate that dermal wounds undergo approximately 80% of the anticipated contracture within the first 3 weeks1 (Fig. 11-4).

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FIGURE 11-4 Experimental data showing that the majority of tissue contracture occurs in the first 3 weeks.

(With permission from Billingham, R. E., and Russell, P. S.: Studies on wound healing, with special reference to the phenomenon of contracture in experimental wounds in rabbits’ skin. Ann. Surg. 144:961, 1956, p. 964.)

Continuous motion, if properly used, has been shown to be an important adjunct to successfully alter this tendency and hence prevent contracture (see Chapter 10).

After trauma, this modality is used with confidence, particularly if rigid fixation has been afforded to the fracture and if pain and inflammation can be controlled. After 3 to 8 weeks of treatment and if the fracture has been rigidly fixed and it is thought that force can safely be applied, the use of splints may be introduced in order to gain further motion. In general, the author’s philosophy is that continuous motion machine maintains motion but does not gain motion. The use of static adjustable splints attains motion both in flexion and in extension. The question then arises as to the best method of providing a force to stretch the periarticular soft tissues. There are four possibilities: physical therapy, continuous passive motion, dynamic splinting, and static adjustable splinting.