Supracondylar fractures are a classic paediatric injury which require vigilance as imaging findings can be subtle.
Simple supracondylar fractures are typically seen in younger children, and are uncommon in adults; 90% are seen in children younger than 10 years of age, with a peak age of 5-7 years 4,6. These fractures are more commonly seen in boys 4.
These injuries are almost always due to accidental trauma, such as falling from a moderate height (bed/monkey-bars) 4.
Rarely (<5%) supracondylar fractures are seen due to a fall onto the flexed elbow. They occur in older individuals and require different management and are discussed separately: see flexion supracondylar fracture 5.
Typically supracondylar fractures occur as a result of a fall on a hyper-extended elbow. They result in an extra-articular fracture line, and (when displaced) posterior displacement of the distal component.
Classification of supracondylar fractures is relatively straightforward and based on three types 6-7:
- type I: undisplaced
- type II: displaced with intact cortex
- type III: complete displacement
Lateral and AP radiographs are usually sufficient, and in many instances demonstrate an obvious fracture. Often, however, no fracture line can be identified. In such cases assessing for indirect signs is essential:
- anterior fat pad sign (sail sign): the anterior fat pad is elevated by a joint effusion and appears as a lucent triangle on the lateral projection
- posterior fat pad sign
- anterior humeral line should intersect the middle third of the capitellum in most children 2 although, in children under 4, the anterior humeral line may pass through the anterior third without injury
After ensuring that the films are technically adequate, assessment should include:
- visible fracture line
- location and especially presence of articular involvement
- angulation (use the anterior humeral line)
- alignment of the radius and ulnar with the distal humerus
- invisible fracture line
- assess for joint effusion (anterior and posterior fat pad sign)
- if present explicitly raise the possibility of an occult supracondylar fracture and recommend re-imaging in 7-10 days
- remember to consider other elbow trauma: radial head dislocation / pulled elbow / epicondylar fractures can all mimic an undisplaced supracondylar fracture
- remember to assess elbow centers of ossification (CRITOE)
Treatment and prognosis
Although in many cases the fracture is easily seen, in some instances all that may be seen is soft tissue swelling or an anterior fat pad sign. Even in the absence of an obvious fracture, the patient needs to be treated with a cast. Repeating radiographs after inflammation has subsided may be helpful in demonstrating the fracture; this is typically done 7-10 days later.
Management depends on the type and degree of angulation 5,7.
Type I (undisplaced) fractures are stable and can be treated with cast immobilisation for approximately 3 weeks.
Type II usually require reduction (especially when angulation is more than 20 degrees). Although traditionally these fractures were treated non-operatively with cast immobilisation of the flexed arm to 120 degrees, this however dramatically increases the risk of ischaemic contracture (Volkmann contracture), as such most authors recommend percutaneous pinning (CRIF) and cast immobilisation with less than 90 degrees flexion 5,7.
Type III fractures can sometimes be treated similarly to type II (closed reduction and percutaneous pinning, CRIF) although frequently the fracture is held open by interposed soft tissues requiring open reduction 7.
There are three main complications 2-3:
- malunion: resulting in cubitus varus (varus deformity of the elbow, also known as gunstock deformity)
- ischaemic contracture (Volkmann contracture) due to damage/occlusion to the brachial artery and resulting in volar compartment syndrome
- damage to the ulnar nerve (most common), median nerve or radial nerve
- fishtail deformity due to resorption of the trochlear ossification centre (or failure of formation) due to an osteonecrosis type phenomenon
- 1. John SD, Wherry K, Swischuk LE et-al. Improving detection of pediatric elbow fractures by understanding their mechanics. Radiographics. 1996;16 (6): 1443-60. Radiographics (abstract) - Pubmed citation
- 2. Greenspan A. Orthopedic imaging, a practical approach. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins. (2004) ISBN:0781750067. Read it at Google Books - Find it at Amazon
- 3. Marinček B, Dondelinger RF. Emergency Radiology, Imaging And Intervention. Springer Verlag. (2006) ISBN:354026227X. Read it at Google Books - Find it at Amazon
- 4. Benson M, Fixsen J, MacNicol M. Children's Orthopaedics and Fractures. Springer Verlag. (2010) ISBN:1848826109. Read it at Google Books - Find it at Amazon
- 5. Baker CL, Plancher KD. Operative Treatment of Elbow Injuries. Springer Verlag. (2002) ISBN:0387989056. Read it at Google Books - Find it at Amazon
- 6. Fajiah P. Surgical Radiology: Clinical Cases. PasTest Ltd. (2007) ISBN:1905635214. Read it at Google Books - Find it at Amazon
- 7. Rang M, Pring ME, Wenger DR. Rang's children's fractures. Philadelphia : Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, c2005. (2005) ISBN:0781752868. Read it at Google Books - Find it at Amazon
- elbow anatomy
- elbow radiography
- MRI of the elbow - an approach
- distal humeral fracture
- Panner disease (osteochondrosis of the capitellum)