Finger and Thumb Trauma Imaging

Updated: Nov 15, 2015
  • Author: Ali Nawaz Khan, MBBS, FRCS, FRCP, FRCR; Chief Editor: Eugene C Lin, MD  more...
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Overview

Overview

Early attention to finger and thumb trauma such as sprains, open wounds, lacerations, nerve injuries, fractures, and dislocations are vital to prevent long term sequelae. The role of a radiologist is vital in providing a rapid and accurate diagnosis in guiding the attending physician. When conventional radiographic images are negative for fractures, stress radiographs are used. However, the results of stress radiographs are often difficult to interpret, and there is always the underlying concern that stress maneuvers may exacerbate the injury. (See the radiographic images below.)

Radiograph of the thumb shows a crush fracture of Radiograph of the thumb shows a crush fracture of the tuft of the terminal phalanx following a blow from a hammer.
Oblique fracture of the shaft of the terminal phal Oblique fracture of the shaft of the terminal phalanx of the thumb.
Frontal and oblique radiographs of the hand show a Frontal and oblique radiographs of the hand show a spiral fracture of the base of the third metacarpal bone.
A fracture of the shaft of the fifth metacarpal bo A fracture of the shaft of the fifth metacarpal bone sustained following a street brawl.

Both magnetic resonance imaging and ultrasonography (US) are capable of not only visualizing the ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) directly but also classifying the tears into surgical and nonsurgical injuries (see the images below). Ultrasonography is a quick and noninvasive examination that can confirm the integrity of the UCL. Other pathologies affecting the metacarophalangeal (MCP) joint, such as tenosynovitis and tendon tears, can also be diagnosed by ultrasonography. Ultrasonography is also a useful technique in the follow-up of UCL injuries. [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8]

CT scanning is not routinely indicated but may be desirable in assessing joint alignment in dislocations (see the images below). CT and MRI are noninvasive techniques that can be used in the diagnosis of arteriovenous malformations. Plain radiographs, CT, and ultrasonography may be utilized in locating foreign bodies in fingers.

Coronal CT scan shows a small radiopaque foreign b Coronal CT scan shows a small radiopaque foreign body in the web space.
Axial CT scan shows a small radiopaque foreign bod Axial CT scan shows a small radiopaque foreign body in the web space.
In this image and the following 3 images, a STIR s In this image and the following 3 images, a STIR sequence coronal MRI of the thumb showing a mild effusion in the first MCP joint, associated with a tear of the ulnar collateral ligament and a tiny chip fracture at the base of the proximal phalanx placed on the ulnar aspect. These changes are suggestive of a gamekeeper's thumb.
STIR sequence coronal MRI of the thumb showing a m STIR sequence coronal MRI of the thumb showing a mild effusion in the first MCP joint, associated with a tear of the ulnar collateral ligament and a tiny chip fracture at the base of the proximal phalanx placed on the ulnar aspect. These changes are suggestive of a gamekeeper's thumb (see also the following 2 images).
STIR sequence coronal MRI of the thumb showing a m STIR sequence coronal MRI of the thumb showing a mild effusion in the first MCP joint, associated with a tear of the ulnar collateral ligament and a tiny chip fracture at the base of the proximal phalanx placed on the ulnar aspect. These changes are suggestive of a gamekeeper's thumb (see also the following image).
Coronal ultrasound images in the same patient as i Coronal ultrasound images in the same patient as in the 3 previous images show an interruption of the ulnar collateral ligament.

Radionuclide scanning is useful in stress fractures that may initially be negative on plain radiographs, although MRI can perform a similar function. Angiography may be useful and essential if embolization is planned for posttraumatic arteriovenous malformations and aneurysms. Avulsion fractures are usually assessed by plain radiographs, but because avulsion fractures may be seen in up to 12% of UCL injuries, plain radiographs cannot provide accurate assessment of ligamentous injury.

Plain radiographs fail to provide input into Stener lesions. In Stener lesions, there is significant retraction of the proximal UCL, so that the retracted UCL is seen superficial to the aponeurosis and the UCL is no longer seen in continuity. Both MRI and US imaging allow direct visualization of these lesions. The torn UCL is displaced, is folded on itself, and moves proximal to the adductor aponeurosis, producing the appearance of a "yo-yo on a string" on coronal images. If the injury is over a week old, MR imaging is usually preferred.

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Radiography

Conventional radiographs are the mainstay of thumb and finger injuries (see the images below). They are simple, inexpensive, and noninvasive and provide rapid assessment of fractures and dislocations and exclude the presence of radiopaque foreign bodies. Injuries are simple to interpret, and rapid clinical decisions can be made.

Crush fracture of the terminal phalanx of the midd Crush fracture of the terminal phalanx of the middle finger.
Oblique fracture of the shaft of the terminal phal Oblique fracture of the shaft of the terminal phalanx of the thumb.
Frontal and oblique radiographs of the hand show a Frontal and oblique radiographs of the hand show a spiral fracture of the base of the third metacarpal bone.
Recent fracture of the shaft of the fourth metacar Recent fracture of the shaft of the fourth metacarpal bone and an old fracture of the shaft of the fifth metacarpal bone.
A frontal radiograph of the hand shows a fracture A frontal radiograph of the hand shows a fracture of the base of the fifth metacarpal bone.
A plain radiograph of the thumb shows laxity at th A plain radiograph of the thumb shows laxity at the MCP joint suggestive of UCL tear.
Differential diagnosis of painful fingers: gout. Differential diagnosis of painful fingers: gout.
Differential diagnosis of painful fingers: osteoid Differential diagnosis of painful fingers: osteoid osteoma of the third metacarpal bone. Note the increased focal activity on the isotope bone scan and sclerosis on the radiograph.
Differential diagnosis of painful fingers: erosion Differential diagnosis of painful fingers: erosion of the terminal phalanges due to PVC exposure.
Differential diagnosis of painful fingers: metasta Differential diagnosis of painful fingers: metastasis from a bronchogenic carcinoma of the head of the second metacarpal bone complicated by a pathologic fracture.

Fracture and dislocations are quite obvious on plain radiographs and can be subdivided into crush fractures, linear coronal, oblique, and vertical fractures. Fractures may angulated and compound. Avulsion fractures are also simple to diagnose and are located at sites of ligamentous attachments. Dislocations are usually assessed by the degree of displacement of apposing bones at the joint involved.

Fractures of the heads of the middle and proximal phalanges may be missed on plain radiographs, unless oblique views are obtained. Stress fractures may not become apparent until several days after the injury. Plain radiographs do not provide sufficient information on soft tissues and ligamentous injuries for clinical decision making.

Evaluation and treatment of basal thumb joint problems require a radiographic examination, along with a careful history and physical examination. The "true" anteroposterior (AP) and stress views provide useful information that supplements the standard plain radiographs. Additional maneuvers, such as local injection and other imaging modalities, are also sometimes employed. [9]

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Computed Tomography

Computed tomography is not as elaborate in providing information about soft tissue injuries, ligamentous tears, and bone bruises as MRI, but CT appears to be more useful in helping determine the severity of dislocations. CT may miss ligamentous injuries and bone bruises. [10]

Rotational dislocation at the fracture site is a complication of long finger bone fractures of the metacarpals and phalanges. Differences in torsion angles exceeding 3 º are strongly suspicious of a malrotation after fracture. These measurements may help in the planning of derotational osteotomy and in assessing the results of therapy. [11]

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Magnetic Resonance Imaging

According to Clavero et al, an optimal MRI technique to provide important information for diagnosis and evaluation of soft tissue trauma of the fingers should include proper positioning, dedicated surface coils, and specific protocols for the suspected abnormalities. Familiarity with the fine anatomy of the normal finger is crucial for identifying pathologic entities. [1, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 5, 6]

Connell et al, in a study of MRI appearance of supporting ligaments of the thumb carpometacarpal joint in patients following joint injury, found that the anterior oblique ligament was the most commonly injured ligament, usually on the metacarpal side. The dorsal radial ligament was occasionally avulsed or partially torn from the trapezoid. According to the authors, following chronic injury, MR imaging can evaluate ligamentous laxity, ganglion cyst formation, or osteoarthritis. Accurate evaluation of ligament injury may identify patients who would benefit from surgery. [2]

Spaeth HJ et al evaluated the use of MRI in ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) injury in cadavers and found that MR imaging depicted UCL displacement in all 10 specimens with displaced tears. Nondisplaced tears were diagnosed in 4 control specimens. Although MR imaging was only 67% specific for all tears, it was 100% sensitive and 94% specific for depicting UCL displacement and, therefore, was considered useful for evaluating gamekeeper thumb (see the image below). [23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28] Romano et al described a number UCL injuries not previously described and therefore illustrated an existence of a subclass of UCL abnormalities. [29]

In this image and the following 3 images, a STIR s In this image and the following 3 images, a STIR sequence coronal MRI of the thumb showing a mild effusion in the first MCP joint, associated with a tear of the ulnar collateral ligament and a tiny chip fracture at the base of the proximal phalanx placed on the ulnar aspect. These changes are suggestive of a gamekeeper's thumb.
STIR sequence coronal MRI of the thumb showing a m STIR sequence coronal MRI of the thumb showing a mild effusion in the first MCP joint, associated with a tear of the ulnar collateral ligament and a tiny chip fracture at the base of the proximal phalanx placed on the ulnar aspect. These changes are suggestive of a gamekeeper's thumb (see also the following 2 images).
STIR sequence coronal MRI of the thumb showing a m STIR sequence coronal MRI of the thumb showing a mild effusion in the first MCP joint, associated with a tear of the ulnar collateral ligament and a tiny chip fracture at the base of the proximal phalanx placed on the ulnar aspect. These changes are suggestive of a gamekeeper's thumb (see also the following image).
Coronal ultrasound images in the same patient as i Coronal ultrasound images in the same patient as in the 3 previous images show an interruption of the ulnar collateral ligament.

MRI is a powerful method for evaluating acute and chronic lesions of the stabilizing articular elements (volar plate and collateral ligaments) of the fingers and thumbs, particularly in the frequently affected proximal interphalangeal and metacarpophalangeal joints. As in other body regions, MRI is also useful for depicting traumatic conditions of the extensor and flexor tendons, including injuries to the pulley system. In general, normal ligaments and tendons have low signal intensity on MR images, whereas disruption manifests as increased signal intensity. [2]

Haramati et al examined 6 cadaveric thumbs to assess the utility of MRI in detecting surgically induced Stener lesions. [30] MRI examinations (2-dimensional short tau inversion recovery [STIR] and 3-dimensional gradient recalled acquisition in steady state [GRASS]) were performed identically on all specimens both before displacement (non-Stener) and after displacement (Stener lesion) of the UCL. They concluded that 2-D imaging is probably inadequate for the evaluation of Stener lesions. The most likely reason is that the STIR slice thickness of 3 mm limits resolution of small UCLs. The poor sensitivity and specificity of GRASS, as well as poor interobserver agreement, suggest that MRI may not be sufficiently accurate for Stener lesion evaluation.

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Ultrasonography

Ultrasonography (US), like MRI, is capable of not only visualizing the ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) directly but also classifying the tears into surgical and nonsurgical injuries. US is a quick, noninvasive examination that can confirm the integrity of UCL. Other pathologies affecting the metacarpophalangeal (MCP) joint, such as tenosynovitis and tendon tears, can also be diagnosed by US. Ultrasonography is also a useful technique in the follow-up of UCL injuries. Ultrasound only deals with soft tissue injuries and provides little if any useful information on fractures and dislocations. Doppler ultrasound techniques are noninvasive methods to assess posttraumatic aneurysms and arteriovenous malformations. [3, 31, 4, 32, 33, 34, 7, 8]

Ultrasonography has been found to be useful in the diagnosis of foreign-body–associated tenosynovitis. [35] It is a noninvasive technique that gives rapid diagnosis of ligamentous injuries that can be used on the playing field and provides clinical information allowing appropriate treatment by sports physicians.

The pattern of injury to the UCL varies from a strain, which is the mildest injury, to a full-thickness tear. Associated findings may be observed on US as well as MRI and include bone avulsions, joint effusion, volar plate injury, and the Stener lesion. Classification of the injury (see the image below) is important, because the management of these injuries is highly dependent on the type of injury. Since UCL is a capsular ligament, nondisplaced rupture is generally treated conservatively.

Line diagram showing classification of UCL tears. Line diagram showing classification of UCL tears.

Ultrasound is able to depict the position of the torn UCL correctly in approximately 90% of cases. It is important to know about ultrasound-related pitfalls (eg, dislocation of the palmar joint capsule to the ulnar joint space, scalloping of the adductor aponeurosis due to the displaced UCL, and scar tissue or technical mistakes) because conservative treatment of a displaced UCL tear leads to instability. Therefore, the use of MRI is recommended whenever a nondisplaced UCL tear is suspected by US and conservative therapy is suggested. Splitting the diagnostic pathway between US and MRI and preferring conservative therapy in nondisplaced UCL tears should help keep costs down. [36, 37]

The hand is usually placed on the table, and a 12-13 MHz linear probe is used for examination following a liberal use of US gel. The probe is placed over the second finger and then slid onto the first MCP joint to obtain either axial or longitudinal images. The examination is relatively quick, typically taking less than a minute. Doppler studies can be added to assess the vascularity of the synovium and other vascular structures. The normal UCL appears hyperechoic on the ulnar side of the first MCP joint. Overlying the UCL is another, thinner hyperechoic band that represents the adductor pollicis aponeurosis.

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Nuclear Imaging

Stress fracture is a common injury in healthy athletic patients and leads to local pain, often with no radiologic findings. Technetium-99m methylene diphosphonate (99m Tc-MDP) scintigraphy is a sensitive and a noninvasive technique in the diagnosis of such fractures. A negative scan 72 hours after an injury virtually excludes a fracture. 99m Tc-MDP scintigraphy is also useful in the differential diagnosis of a painful hand (eg, hypertrophic osteoarthropathy).

Radionuclide studies have been found to be useful in the advanced stages of repetitive strain injuries (RSIs). RSIs are characterized by lesions to the soft tissue after strainful work. An RSI requires rapid diagnosis and treatment, because it may lead to temporary or permanent functional impairment. Diagnosis is based primarily on clinical complaints, physical examination, and radiographic findings.

Technetium-99 pyrophosphate scanning has been found to be useful in the management of high-voltage electrical injuries. Occult muscle damage may not become apparent for 5-10 days. In one study, early scanning (within 3 days of injury) of 19 limbs in 15 patients demonstrated a sensitivity of 75% and a specificity of 100%. The predictive value of a positive test was 100%%. However, compared to a control group of 17 patients treated without technetium scanning, scanning was not associated with reduced hospital stay or with a decrease in the number of surgical procedures. [38]

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Angiography

Conventional angiography has largely been replaced by Doppler ultrasound, magnetic resonance angiography, and computed tomography angiography, but angiography is required when embolization of an aneurysm or arteriovenous malformation is planned. Angiography remains the gold standard in the investigation of vascular abnormalities. Angiographic findings may be suboptimal in the presence of metal used in internal fixation of bone fractures.

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