1 Principles top
Proper reduction of the humeral head fragment is key. This may require an glenohumeral arthrotomy, via either an osteotomy of the lesser tuberosity or tenotomy of the subscapularis tendon, to improve visualization and manipulation.
Angular stable versus standard plates
This procedure describes proximal humeral fracture fixation with an angular stable plate (A). Sometimes, these implants are not available. Standard plates provide an alternative option, for example the modified cloverleaf plate (B). Presently, the specific indications, advantages, and disadvantages of angular stable and standard plates are being clarified. There is some evidence that angular stable plate provide better outcomes. In addition to type and technique of fixation, the quality of reduction, the soft-tissue handling, and the characteristics of the injury and patient significantly influence the results. There is no evidence that the use of angular stable plates will overcome these other factors.
2 Reduction and preliminary fixation topenlarge
Reduction of the humeral head
Reduction of the humeral head may be possible with digital pressure without open exposure. If this is unsuccessful, one could use a periosteal elevator or a bone hook inserted into the glenohumeral joint through a small incision of the rotator cuff.
Prolonged attempts at closed reduction are not encouraged. Proceed with open reduction through an anterior shoulder arthrotomy. For a description of the anterior shoulder arthrotomy see the deltopectoral approach.
One or two threaded pins in the humeral head may be used as “joy-sticks”, to aid the reduction.
Fix the humeral head temporarily
Secure the reduced humeral head temporarily using 2 or 3 K-wires. As shown, they are placed from distal to proximal.
Make sure that they are anterior enough to avoid interfering with the plate application.
Check the position of the humeral head in the axial/lateral view and be sure that there is no anteversion or excessive retroversion of the humeral head.
Remember that the C-arm should be placed so that AP and axial views can both be obtained by C-arm repositioning without motion of the patient’s arm.
3 Plate fixation topenlarge
Attach plate to humeral shaft
Attach the plate to the humeral shaft with a bicortical small fragment 3.5 mm screw inserted through the elongated hole.
Pearl 1: fine tuning of plate position
If the first screw is inserted only loosely in the center of the elongated hole, fine-tuning of the plate position is still possible. With the plate in proper position, tighten this screw securely.
Correct plate position
The correct plate position is:
- about 5-8 mm distal to the top of the greater tuberosity
- aligned properly along the axis of the humeral shaft
- slightly posterior to the bicipital grove (2-4 mm)
Confirmation of correct plate position
The correct plate position can be checked by palpation of its relationship to the bony structures and also confirmed by image intensification.
To confirm a correct axial plate position insert a K-wire through the proximal hole of the insertion guide. The K-wire should rest on the top of the humeral head.
Pitfall 1: plate too close to the bicipital groove
The bicipital tendon and the ascending branch of the anterior humeral circumflex artery are at risk if the plate is positioned too close to the bicipital groove. (The illustration shows the plate in correct position, posterior to the bicipital groove).
Pitfall 2: plate too proximal
A plate positioned too proximal carries two risks:
- The plate can impinge the acromion
- The most proximal screws might penetrate or fail to securely engage the humeral head
Remember that with an anatomical neck fracture, the humeral head fragment is small. Proper plate position is critical for optimal screw placement.
Pearl 2: preliminary plate fixation with K-wires
For x-ray confirmation of plate position, one can fix the plate preliminarily to the bone with several 1.4 mm K-wires inserted through the small plate holes, before placing any screws.
Pearl 3: insert K-wires through appropriate guiding sleeves.
Fix plate to the humeral head
Use an appropriate sleeve to drill holes for the humeral head screws. Do not drill through the subchondral bone and into the shoulder joint.
Avoiding intraarticular screw placement
Screws that penetrate the humeral head may significantly damage the glenoid cartilage. Primary penetration occurs when the screws are initially placed. Secondary penetration is the result of subsequent fracture collapse. Drilling into the joint increases the risk of screws becoming intraarticular.
Two drilling techniques help to avoid drilling into the joint.
Pearl 1: “Woodpecker”-drilling technique (as illustrated)
In the woodpecker-drilling technique, advance the drill bit only for a short distance, then pull the drill back before advancing again. Keep repeating this procedure until subchondral bone contact can be felt. Take great care to avoid penetration of the humeral head.
Pearl 2: Drilling near cortex only
Particular in osteoporotic bone, one can drill only through the near cortex. Push the depth gauge through the remaining bone until subchondral resistance is felt.
Determine screw length
The intact subchondral bone should be felt with a depth gauge or blunt pin to ensure that the screw stays within the humeral head. The integrity of the subchondral bone can be confirmed by palpation or the sound of the instrument tapping against it. Typically, choose a screw slightly shorter than the measured length.
Insert a locking-head screw through the screw sleeve into the humeral head. The sleeve aims the screw correctly. Particularly in osteoporotic bone, a screw may not follow the hole that has been drilled.
Number of screws and location
Place a sufficient number of screws (often 5) into the humeral head. The optimal number and location of screws has not been determined. Bone quality and fracture morphology should be considered. In osteoporotic bone a higher number of screws may be required.
Insert additional screws into the humeral shaft
Insert one or two additional bicortical screws into the humeral shaft.
Any K-wires placed during the procedure may now be removed.
4 Use of standard plates topenlarge
If no angular stable plate is available, a standard plate provides an alternative. The described procedure (reduction, preliminary fixation, and rotator cuff sutures) is essentially the same for standard plates, except for the screws. A good choice from the standard plates is the small fragment cloverleaf plate, with its tip cut off, and contoured as necessary. This plate allows multiple small fragment screws for the humeral head.
Be aware that angular stable implants provide better fixation, especially in osteoporotic bone. On the other hand, even angular stable plates are not a substitute for good surgical technique and judgment. Advances in fracture classification, understanding of the blood supply, use of rotator cuff tendon sutures, anatomical fracture reduction, and provisional fixation, represent improvements in care. When combined with optimal implants, these contributions offer the best chance of a good outcome.