Distal fibular fracture (basic)

Last revised by David Luong on 16 Nov 2021
This is a basic article for medical students and other non-radiologists

Distal fibular fractures are the most common type at the ankle and are usually the result of an inversion injury with or without rotation. They are the extension of a lateral collateral ligament injury.

Ankle injuries, like many fractures have a bimodal distribution. Young patients present following injuries in relatively high-energy trauma (e.g. motor vehicle accident, sporting injury), while older patients present following minor trauma (e.g. a simple fall).

Cigarette smoking and obesity are both risk factors for ankle fractures.

Most patients present following an episode of trauma with ankle pain, tenderness and an inability to weight bear.

The Ottawa ankle rules allow evidence-based decision making regarding the need for plain radiographs in patients with a traumatic ankle injury.

A plain film radiograph is indicated in the setting of trauma if there are any of the following clinical examination findings 1:

  • point tenderness at the posterior edge or tip of the lateral malleoulus
  • point tenderness at the posterior edge or tip of the medial malleoulus
  • inability to bear weight both immediately after injury and during clinical examination

An ankle x-ray series (AP and lateral views) is usually all that is needed to make a diagnosis.

Ankle fractures may be the result of a vast array of injuries that range from an inversion injury to a complex high energy trauma sporting injury. 

Most ankle injuries occur because of an inversion injury. A pure inversion injury will result in tension being applied to the supporting soft tissues of the lateral ankle, particularly the lateral collateral ligament. This results in either a pure ligamentous injury (complete or partial tear) or avulsion of the tip of the fibula (the lateral malleolus). Avulsion injuries do not involve the syndesmosis and the ankle remains stable.

In some cases, inversion coupled with rotation leads to a more complex injury. They tend to cause fractures that are higher up the fibula and the rotational component of the injury may cause syndesmosis tears.

The ankle is a pseudo-ball-and-socket joint; the talus is the ball and the distal tibia and fibula act as the socket. This socket is only functional because the tibia (medial and posterior malleolus) and fibula (lateral malleolus) are held together tightly by the syndesmosis. The syndesmosis is a strong ligament that pulls the tibia and fibula together just above the distal tibiofibular joint.

Classification of distal fibula fractures attempts to split fractures into groups by severity. The commonest classification is the Weber classification that uses the position of the fracture relative to the syndesmosis to group fractures:

  • Weber A: below the syndesmosis (stable)
  • Weber B: at the syndesmosis (possibly unstable)
  • Weber C: above the syndesmosis (unstable)

In Weber B and C fractures the syndesmosis may have been torn (partially or completely). This results in widening of the distal tibiofibular joint and loss of integrity of the socket.

In most cases an ankle x-ray is all that is required for diagnosis and follow up. It is worth noting that fractures may be invisible on one projection.

The AP and lateral views from an ankle x-ray will almost always allow detection of a lateral malleolar fracture. If there is a lot of soft tissue swelling over the lateral malleolus, but no fracture, then there has been a ligamentous injury. Remember that avulsion injuries may be small, and just involve the tip, or the internal surface of the malleolus.

Once you have seen the fracture, remember to describe:

  • which bone is involved (fibula)
  • where the fracture is in the bone (relative to syndesmosis)
  • what type of fracture (transverse, oblique, spiral, comminuted)
  • whether there is displacement (translocation, angulation, rotation)
  • whether there is another fracture (medial malleolus, talus)

The joint spaces around the talus should be the same all the way around. If they are not and the talar dome is not parallel to the tibial plafond, the syndesmosis has been torn. This is called talar shift and the ankle joint is unstable.

Treatment depends on the type of distal fibula fracture which is a reflection of the severity of the fracture and the surrounding ligamentous structures.

The majority of injuries are relatively simple avulsion injuries from the fibular pole and only require immobilization with a cast. However, more severe injuries with ligamentous injury and ankle instability may require operative reduction and internal fixation.

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