Imaging in Ankle Fractures

Updated: Jan 24, 2017
  • Author: Michael E Mulligan, MD; Chief Editor: Felix S Chew, MD, MBA, MEd  more...
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Overview

Overview

The ankle is one of the most frequently injured areas of the skeleton and the site of the most common intra-articular fracture of a weight-bearing joint. Ankle injuries are responsible for over 5 million emergency department visits each year. [1] Although many of these injuries are ligament sprains, the radiologist plays a key role in the thorough evaluation of complex injuries and the detection of subtle fractures (see the images below). [2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7]

Diagram showing the typical locations for ankle fr Diagram showing the typical locations for ankle fractures occurring from the 4 major injury mechanisms. Note that the supination external rotation (SE) fracture is shown as a dashed line, because it is best seen in the lateral projection. PA= pronation abduction; PE= pronation external rotation; SA= supination adduction.
Anteroposterior radiograph from a 37-year-old man Anteroposterior radiograph from a 37-year-old man with a supination adduction stage 2 ankle injury as a result of a motor vehicle collision. This image shows a small avulsion fracture at the tip of the lateral malleolus (stage 1) and an oblique fracture across the base of the medial malleolus (stage 2).

Anatomy

The shapes of the ankle bones and the supporting ligamentous structures are important anatomic features of the ankle area. The distal tibia has a large, flat articular surface (the plafond), a prominent medial malleolus, and a less prominent posterior malleolus. The talar dome is wedge-shaped, wider anteriorly than posteriorly.

The distal fibula or lateral malleolus is bound to the distal tibia by the anterior and posterior inferior tibiofibular ligaments, an inferior transverse ligament, and a syndesmosis ligament. The fibula is also bound to the talus by the anterior and posterior talofibular ligaments and to the calcaneus by the calcaneofibular ligament. The medial malleolus is bound to the talus, calcaneus, and navicular by the superficial and deep portions of the deltoid ligament.

Preferred examination

Brandser et al emphasized the necessity of obtaining 3 conventional radiographs in anteroposterior (AP), internal oblique (mortise), and lateral projections. [8] Other imaging studies, such as arthrography, ultrasonography, computed tomography (CT) scanning, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and nuclear medicine, are rarely used. Radiographic stress views may be done, although they can be difficult to obtain. Park et al reported stress views with dorsiflexion and external rotation of the ankle best show tears of the deltoid ligament by resultant widening of the medial clear space when measured at 5 mm or more. [9]

Limitations of techniques

Despite the use of the standard 3-view conventional radiographic survey, some ankle fractures cannot be seen at the time of initial evaluation. The presence of a large ankle-joint effusion on the initial lateral radiograph suggests an occult fracture.

One third of patients with an effusion measuring 13 mm or more had occult fractures in a series reported by Clark et al. [10]  Many of these occult fractures involve the talar dome. The radiographic appearance often suggests the presence of associated ligamentous injuries, but in a series of 59 patients, Gardner et al showed that MRI is much more specific for ligamentous injuries. [11] Additionally, although radiographic widening of the syndesmotic space of greater than 5 mm is reported to be abnormal, in an MRI series of 70 patients, Nielson et al found no association between the MRI findings of syndesmotic injury and the radiographic measurements. [12] In a more recent prospective series of 51 patients with ankle fractures, Hermans et al confirmed that radiographic measurements of the syndesmotic space, amount of tibiofibular overlap, and width of the medial clear space did not correlate with ligamentous injuries that were shown on concurrent MRI studies. [13]

Differential diagnosis and other problems to be considered

When evaluating for ankle fractures, also consider conditions such as ankle impingement syndrome, ankle sprain, metatarsalgia, metatarsal fractures (eg, fifth metatarsal fractures), talar dome osteochondral injuries, and injuries to other surrounding ligaments and/or tendons.

Special concerns

As some ankle fractures are initially occult, patients with significant injury should be treated symptomatically and asked to return for additional radiographs in 7-10 days if symptoms persist. The physician should pay special attention to certain target areas, such as the medial and lateral edges of the talar dome, the anterior process of the calcaneus, and the base of the fifth metatarsal, in order to check for subtle fractures.

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Radiography

Lauge-Hansen Classification

Many ankle fractures occur in well-known, predictable patterns. [14, 15, 16, 17] Three similar classification schemes are frequently used to describe the findings: the Lauge-Hansen, the Danis-Weber, and the AO-Muller/Orthopaedic Trauma Association (AO/OTA) classification systems. [18, 19, 20, 21] These classifications are nearly identical, but they have different emphases for the radiologist and orthopedic surgeon, respectively. [22] Because the Lauge-Hansen scheme is designed for radiologists, it will be emphasized here.

The Lauge-Hansen classification scheme has 4 injury patterns: supination-adduction (SA) (or Weber A in the Danis-Weber scheme), supination external (SE) rotation (or Weber B), pronation-abduction (PA) (or Weber C1), and pronation external (PE) rotation (or Weber C2). [20, 21] The names of the Lauge-Hansen injury patterns can be thought of as indicating the initial position of the foot and hindfoot (supination or pronation) and the direction of the injuring force acting through the talus (adduction, abduction, external rotation). The location and type of fibula fracture are key to understanding the classification (see the image below).

Diagram showing the typical locations for ankle fr Diagram showing the typical locations for ankle fractures occurring from the 4 major injury mechanisms. Note that the supination external rotation (SE) fracture is shown as a dashed line, because it is best seen in the lateral projection. PA= pronation abduction; PE= pronation external rotation; SA= supination adduction.

Supination adduction (Weber A)

In an SA injury, the foot is supinated (inverted), and an adducting force is exerted on the talus, resulting in 2 sequential injuries. First, tension on the lateral ligaments (the calcaneofibular ligament, primarily) leads to a transverse fracture of the lateral malleolus below or up to the level of the tibiotalar joint line, or a ligament tear occurs. Second, the talus adducts, impacts the medial malleolus, and causes an oblique medial malleolar fracture (see the image below).

Anteroposterior radiograph from a 37-year-old man Anteroposterior radiograph from a 37-year-old man with a supination adduction stage 2 ankle injury as a result of a motor vehicle collision. This image shows a small avulsion fracture at the tip of the lateral malleolus (stage 1) and an oblique fracture across the base of the medial malleolus (stage 2).

Supination external rotation (Weber B)

The SE rotation is the most common mechanism for a "twisted ankle" injury. The foot is supinated, and an external rotation force acts on the talus, resulting in up to 4 sequential injuries, as described in the following:

  • First, the anteroinferiortibiofibular ligament tears.
  • Second, a short oblique fracture of the fibula occurs (which is best seen on lateral radiographs). The direction of this fracture line is typically from posterosuperior to anteroinferior. See the following images.
    Anteroposterior radiograph from a 31-year-old woma Anteroposterior radiograph from a 31-year-old woman with a supination external rotation stage 2 ankle injury. This image only shows lateral soft-tissue swelling. See also the next image.
    Lateral radiograph from a 31-year-old woman with a Lateral radiograph from a 31-year-old woman with a supination external rotation stage 2 ankle injury. This image shows a short, oblique fracture of the distal fibula that extends to the level of the tibiotalar joint line (supination external rotation stage 2 injury). Note that there is no fracture of the posterior malleolus (stage 3) or medial malleolus (stage 4).
  • Third, fracture of the posterior malleolus is observed.
  • Fourth, transverse fracture of the medial malleolus or tear of the deltoid ligament occurs. (Sorrento and Mlodzienski also reported lesions of the lateral aspect of the talar dome in 38% of patients with SE stage 4 injuries. [23] )

Pronation abduction (Weber C1)

With a PA injury, the foot is in a pronated position (everted), and an abducting force is exerted on the talus, resulting in up to 3 sequential injuries, as follows:

  • First, the deep portion of the deltoid ligament becomes tense, and a transverse fracture of the medial malleolus occurs (75% of cases) or the deltoid ligament tears (25% of cases).
  • Second, the talus abducts and stresses the ligaments of the tibiofibula syndesmosis, resulting in a tear of the anteroinferior tibiofibula ligament.
  • Third, further abduction of the talus results in oblique fracture of the distal fibula (see the image below). This fibula fracture ends above the level of the joint line and is best seen on anteroposterior (AP) or mortise views. It may not be visible on lateral radiographs. Injury of the syndesmosis should be suspected when the distance between the lateral edge of the tibia and the medial edge of the fibula measures more than 5 mm on either the AP or mortise views, as reported by Sclafani. [24]
    Anteroposterior radiograph from a 22-year-old man Anteroposterior radiograph from a 22-year-old man with a posteroanterior stage 3 ankle injury. This image shows medial soft-tissue swelling, indicating ligamentous injury (stage 1) and an oblique fracture of the fibula just above the level of the tibiofibular syndesmosis (stage 3 injury). Syndesmosis injury (stage 2) is not evident in this patient.

Pronation external rotation (Weber C2)

In a PE rotation injury, the foot is in a pronated position (everted), and an external rotation force acts through the talus, resulting in up to 4 sequential injuries, as follows:

  • The first 2 injuries are the same as in the PA mechanism (medial malleolar fracture and syndesmosis injury) (see the images below).
    Anteroposterior radiograph from a 27-year-old woma Anteroposterior radiograph from a 27-year-old woman with a pronation external rotation–type ankle injury. This image shows fracture of the medial malleolus (stage 1), widening of the tibiofibular syndesmosis (indicating ligamentous tear, stage 2), and a high fibula fracture (stage 3). See also the next image.
    Lateral radiograph from a 27-year-old woman with a Lateral radiograph from a 27-year-old woman with a pronation external rotation–type ankle injury. This image shows additional fracture of the posterior malleolus, making this a pronation external rotation stage 4 injury.
  • For the third injury, the external rotation force results in a different fibula fracture. It is a short spiral or oblique fracture well above the level of the syndesmosis (usually 6-8 cm above the syndesmosis, but the fracture may be as high as the mid-shaft level). The direction of this fracture line is often opposite the SE fracture line; that is, it extends from anterosuperior to posteroinferior.
  • The fourth injury is a fracture of the posterior malleolus.

Other Ankle Fractures

Maisonneuve, pilon/pylon, Salter-Harris, triplane, and Tillaux fractures are briefly discussed in this section.

Maisonneuve fracture (Weber C3)

The exact mechanism leading to a Maisonneuve fracture is not clear. The injury sequence as described by Pankovich clearly differs from those above. [25]

  • First, a tear of the anteroinferiortibiofibula ligament and the interosseous membrane occurs.
  • Second, fracture of the posterior malleolus or a posterior ligament tear is observed.
  • Third, anteromedial capsular injury is present.
  • Fourth, fracture of the proximal fibula occurs (usually at the neck).
  • Fifth, fracture of the medial malleolus or a deltoid ligament tear is observed (see the images below). (The timing of the last injury in this mechanism distinguishes it from the usual pronation injuries, where the medial malleolar fracture is the first injury in the sequence.)
    Maisonneuve injury. This mortise view shows transv Maisonneuve injury. This mortise view shows transverse fracture of the medial malleolus and widening of the tibiofibular syndesmosis without a fracture of the fibula. This injury is suggestive of a proximal fibula fracture (Maisonneuve fracture). See also the next image.
    Lateral radiograph in a patient with Maisonneuve i Lateral radiograph in a patient with Maisonneuve injury. This image, taken after a short leg cast was applied and the patient reported pain, reveals Maisonneuve fracture of the proximal fibula.

Pilon (pylon) fracture

Some of the fracture patterns listed above include fractures of the medial malleolus or posterior malleolus, but the horizontal articular surface of the tibia, the plafond, is uninvolved. Pilon (pylon) fractures are comminuted fractures involving the plafond. Many other associated fractures may exist, including any or all of the malleoli. The key feature is comminution of the distal tibia articular surface (see the radiograph below and the CT scans from the same patient).

Anteroposterior radiograph of a pilon fracture in Anteroposterior radiograph of a pilon fracture in a 35-year-old man who fell 20 feet. This image shows at least 2 fracture lines extending to the articular surface (plafond) of the tibia. See also the next image.
Axial computed tomography section (multislice acqu Axial computed tomography section (multislice acquisition) from a 35-year-old man who fell 20 feet. This image shows comminution of the tibial plafond. See also the next image.
Coronal reformation (multislice computed tomograph Coronal reformation (multislice computed tomography data) from a 35-year-old man who fell 20 feet. This image shows comminution of the plafond as well as the step-off and gap between fracture fragments.

Most authorities now include the old Lauge-Hansen type pronation dorsiflexion injury as a pilon-type fracture. [26]

Salter-Harris fractures

All types of Salter-Harris injury may involve the distal tibia or fibula. Most simple Salter-Harris fractures of the distal tibia are type 2 (they have a metaphyseal component). Special types of Salter-Harris injury in the ankle region include the triplane and juvenile Tillaux fractures.

Triplane fracture

As the name implies, fractures are seen in 3 different axes (planes) with triplane fracture. These 3 axes (planes) are an axial or horizontal injury through the distal tibia physis, a sagittal component through the distal tibia epiphysis, and a coronal component posteriorly through the distal tibia metaphysis (see the images below).

Anteroposterior radiograph from a 13-year-old girl Anteroposterior radiograph from a 13-year-old girl with triplane fracture. This image shows a sagittal component through the distal tibia epiphysis. See also the next image.
Lateral radiograph from a 13-year-old girl with tr Lateral radiograph from a 13-year-old girl with triplane fracture. This image shows slight axial (horizontal) displacement of the distal tibia epiphysis relative to the distal tibia metaphysis, with widening of the anterior aspect of the physis and a coronally oriented fracture through the posterior portion of the distal tibia metaphysis.

Juvenile Tillaux/Tillaux

In children, a Tillaux fracture is basically a Salter-Harris type 3 fracture of the distal tibia epiphysis that occurs, by definition, at the lateral edge of the epiphysis from tensile avulsion by the syndesmotic ligaments (see the radiograph and CT scan from the same patient below).

Mortise view in an 11-year-old girl with juvenile Mortise view in an 11-year-old girl with juvenile Tillaux fracture. This image shows a fracture involving the lateral portion of tibial epiphysis. See also the next image.
Axial computed tomography section in an 11-year-ol Axial computed tomography section in an 11-year-old girl with juvenile Tillaux fracture. This image was taken with a cast around the child's ankle and confirms the radiographic finding of a fracture fragment at the lateral aspect of the tibial epiphysis. Note that no other fracture lines are present.

Its adult counterpart is simply a Tillaux fracture, and the fibula avulsion counterpart is known as a Wagstaff-LeFort fracture.

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Computed Tomography

CT scanning is not needed for the evaluation of most ankle fractures. It may be used to better define pilon fractures or triplane fractures. Thin overlapping sections should be taken in case coronal and sagittal reconstructions are needed, or newer multislice isotropic techniques should be used. [19, 27]

The following are some radiographs and CT scans of ankle fractures from the same patients.

Anteroposterior radiograph of a pilon fracture in Anteroposterior radiograph of a pilon fracture in a 35-year-old man who fell 20 feet. This image shows at least 2 fracture lines extending to the articular surface (plafond) of the tibia. See also the next image.
Axial computed tomography section (multislice acqu Axial computed tomography section (multislice acquisition) from a 35-year-old man who fell 20 feet. This image shows comminution of the tibial plafond. See also the next image.
Coronal reformation (multislice computed tomograph Coronal reformation (multislice computed tomography data) from a 35-year-old man who fell 20 feet. This image shows comminution of the plafond as well as the step-off and gap between fracture fragments.
Mortise view in an 11-year-old girl with juvenile Mortise view in an 11-year-old girl with juvenile Tillaux fracture. This image shows a fracture involving the lateral portion of tibial epiphysis. See also the next image.
Axial computed tomography section in an 11-year-ol Axial computed tomography section in an 11-year-old girl with juvenile Tillaux fracture. This image was taken with a cast around the child's ankle and confirms the radiographic finding of a fracture fragment at the lateral aspect of the tibial epiphysis. Note that no other fracture lines are present.
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Magnetic Resonance Imaging

MRI is not needed for the evaluation of most ankle fractures. This imaging modality can show additional injuries in children with Salter-Harris fractures and may also be used to check for occult injuries, especially injuries of the talar dome, or soft-tissue injuries, such as surrounding ligament or tendon abnormalities. [28] If MRI is performed specifically for evaluation of the distal tibiofibular ligaments, an oblique axial imaging plane should be included. [13]

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Ultrasonography

Ultrasonography is not usually used for the evaluation of patients with ankle fractures. However, this technique can depict fractures and associated soft-tissue injuries, especially injuries of the peroneal tendons. [1] In addition, Hsu et al found ultrasonography to be useful for identifying ligament injuries in patients with inversion ankle sprains. [29] Mei-Dan et al using dynamic ultrasound recently have reported normal values for the width of the syndesmosis based on a study of 110 healthy subjects. In neutral, 3.78 mm; with internal rotation stress, 3.64 mm; and with external rotation stress, 4.08 mm. [30]

The combination of Ottawa Foot and Ankle Rules (OFAR) and bedside ultrasound was found in one study to have a high sensitivity and specificity for detecting foot and/or ankle fractures in the ED, which could decrease the number of x-rays and improve the efficiency and costs associated with evaluating these injuries in the ED. The sensitivity of US in detecting foot and/or ankle fractures was 100%, and the specificity of OFAR increased from 50% to 100% with the addition of US. The negative predictive value and the positive predictive value were both 100%. [31]

 

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Nuclear Imaging

Bone scintigraphy is not needed for the evaluation of most ankle injuries, but it can be used to look for occult injuries, especially injuries of the talar dome.

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