Syndactyly Treatment & Management

Updated: Jan 31, 2020
  • Author: E Gene Deune, MD, MBA; Chief Editor: Harris Gellman, MD  more...
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Treatment

Approach Considerations

In itself, a minor incomplete syndactyly is not an indication for surgery if the only issue is its incongruous appearance. However, a syndactyly that prevents full range of motion in the involved fingers warrants surgical release to increase functionality of the fingers. (See the images below.) As with any operation, exceptions to the rule exist.

Complete simple syndactyly of ring and small finge Complete simple syndactyly of ring and small fingers. Note ring finger proximal interphalangeal (PIP) joint flexion deformity due to complete syndactyly between border digits.
Complete simple ring and small finger syndactyly. Complete simple ring and small finger syndactyly. Note ulnar deviation of ring finger due to syndactyly of small finger.

In cases of complex syndactyly where the conjoint fingers together are functional but individually hypoplastic, separation of the conjoint fingers may make the two individualized digits nonfunctional, because only one set of tendons and one neurovascular pedicle may be present. This possibility must be carefully considered in those few individuals who have complex syndactyly. Otherwise, most patients with syndactyly benefit from surgical release.

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Medical Therapy

Syndactyly requires surgical intervention. Full-term infants can be scheduled for elective surgical procedures as early as 5 or 6 months of age. Surgery before this age can increase anesthetic risks. Prior to that time, there is generally no need for intervention if there are no problems. If there is an associated paronychia (see the image below), which can occur with complex syndactyly, the parents are given instructions to wash the child's hands thoroughly with soap and water and to apply a topical antibacterial solution or ointment. Oral antibiotics are given when indicated.

Paronychia in patient with Apert syndrome. Despite Paronychia in patient with Apert syndrome. Despite use of oral antibiotics and topical antibiotic solution, paronychia did not fully resolve until fingers were divided.
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Timing of Surgery

The timing of surgery is variable. However, if more fingers are involved and the syndactyly is more complex, release should be performed earlier. Early release can prevent the malrotation and angulation that develops from differential growth rates of the involved fingers. [18]

In persons with complex syndactyly, the author performs the first release of the border digits when the individual is approximately 6 months old. This approach is used because differential growth rates are observed, particularly between the small finger and the ring finger or between the thumb and the index finger. Prolonged syndactyly between these digits can cause permanent deformities.

If more than one syndactyly is present in the same hand, simultaneous surgical release can be performed, provided that only one side of the involved fingers is released. For example, in a four-finger syndactyly involving the index, long, ring, and small fingers, the index finger can be released from the long finger and the small finger from the ring finger, leaving a central syndactyly involving the long and ring fingers (see the images below). If both hands are involved, bilateral releases can be performed at one operative setting.

Left hand of patient with type II Apert syndrome. Left hand of patient with type II Apert syndrome. Hand has already undergone previous first-stage division. Bilateral releases were simultaneously performed to release border digits along with deepening of first webspaces using four-flap Z-plasty.
Volar view of left hand of patient with type II Ap Volar view of left hand of patient with type II Apert syndrome. Hand has already undergone first-stage division. Bilateral releases were simultaneously performed to release border digits along with deepening of first webspaces using four-flap Z-plasty.

Whenever feasible, bilateral releases should be performed to reduce the number of operations and the associated risks. Postoperative bilateral immobilization of the upper extremities is well tolerated in the child who is younger than 18 months. The increasingly active child who is older than 18 months has a difficult time with bilateral immobilization. Therefore, in children older than 18 months, any procedures must be staged unilaterally. The remaining syndactyly between the long finger and ring finger can be released approximately 6 months later (see the images below). 

Left hand of patient with type II Apert syndrome. Left hand of patient with type II Apert syndrome. Picture was obtained 6 months after second-stage release was performed for central digits between long finger and ring finger. Surgical release was performed with standard zigzag incisions. Soft-tissue coverage for phalanges was sufficient after release; therefore, pedicle groin flap was not needed. Long finger and ring finger shared conjoint nail, which was also released successfully. This picture was taken during subsequent surgical revision of tracheostomy.
Dorsal view of left hand of patient with type II A Dorsal view of left hand of patient with type II Apert syndrome. Picture was obtained 6 months after second-stage release was performed for central digits between long finger and ring finger. Surgical release was performed with standard zigzag incisions. Soft-tissue coverage for phalanges was sufficient after release; therefore, pedicle groin flap was not needed. Long finger and ring finger shared conjoint nail, which was also released successfully. This picture was taken during subsequent surgical revision of tracheostomy.

In an individual with isolated central syndactyly between the long finger and ring finger, the release need not be accomplished until the second year of life because of similar growth rates between the long finger and ring finger. It is preferable to complete all major reconstructions before a child reaches school age.

However, even if the child is older than the ideal age (which is usually before school age, for functional, developmental, and psychological reasons), it is not too late to release the central rays (long and ring fingers), because they have similar growth rates. For example, a 5° flexion contracture could eventually improve once the fingers are released. In children, unlike adults, persistent flexion contractures are rare.

The technical details of syndactyly release are similar to the release performed in infants. In older patients, splints are still applied but can be removed earlier, at about 7-10 days, because the patients are more compliant with activity and with dressing changes after the splint is removed. [19]

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Operative Therapy

Preparation for surgery

The parents are instructed to bathe the patient on the morning of surgery, with particular instructions to wash the hands and the groin region where the skin graft will be harvested.

Operative details

With any initial syndactyly release, only one side of the finger should be operated on at any given time to prevent ischemic compromise to the finger should one of the digital vessels be absent or be injured. The surgical division is individually tailored in accordance with the complexity and location of the syndactyly.

Generally, the release is accomplished by dividing the fingers and resurfacing the surgical wound with a well-vascularized dorsal trapezoid-shaped flap, interdigitating fasciocutaneous flaps, and full-thickness skin grafts to resurface interdigital spaces (see the images below). The web is reconstructed with a well-vascularized dorsal fasciocutaneous flap. [20, 21]

Dorsal view of hand of 1-year-old patient with com Dorsal view of hand of 1-year-old patient with complete simple syndactyly between long finger and ring finger. Typical zigzag incisions are marked on both dorsal and volar surfaces. Note length of dorsal trapezoidal flap design. Because flap must be inset at 45° angle with distal edge of web at midlevel of proximal phalanges, it must be long enough to achieve this goal.
Volar view of hand of 1-year-old patient with comp Volar view of hand of 1-year-old patient with complete simple syndactyly between long finger and ring finger. Typical zigzag incisions are marked on both dorsal and volar surfaces. Note length of dorsal trapezoidal flap design. Because flap must be inset at 45° angle with distal edge of web at midlevel of proximal phalanges, it must be long enough to achieve this goal. Note incidental simian crease.
Hand of 1-year-old patient with complete simple sy Hand of 1-year-old patient with complete simple syndactyly between long finger and ring finger. Picture was taken immediately after procedure. On dorsal view, note proximal skin graft on ulnar and radial sides of dorsal trapezoidal flap.
Hand of 1-year-old patient with complete simple sy Hand of 1-year-old patient with complete simple syndactyly between long finger and ring finger. Picture was taken immediately after procedure.

This flap is inset with a sloping inclination in the dorsal-to-volar orientation, with the distal edge ending at the midlength of the proximal phalanx. If the fingernail is involved, it should be divided longitudinally. If the fingernails are broad, they should be reduced to normal size. After osteotomy, local fasciocutaneous flaps should be applied to any bony exposure for stable coverage. Occasionally, when the area of exposed bone is small, a full-thickness skin graft may suffice.

It is important that the local interdigitating flaps be designed well to minimize the need for skin grafts. The full-thickness skin grafts are applied to areas that remain uncovered by the fasciocutaneous flaps.

The parents should be informed that as a rule, skin grafts are needed for all cases except the most minor cases of incomplete simple syndactyly (eg, those located in the first web space between the thumb and the index finger). In the setting of incomplete simple syndactyly, various techniques (eg, a double-opposing Z-plasty or a four-flap Z-plasty) are available that may not require skin grafts [22]  (see the images below). Some have studied the application of graft-free techniques to complete simple syndactyly as well. [23, 24, 25]

Dorsal view of left hand demonstrating simple inco Dorsal view of left hand demonstrating simple incomplete syndactyly between long finger and ring finger. This incomplete simple syndactyly was released by using V-to-M flap without need for a skin graft. Note markings.
Volar view of left hand demonstrates simple incomp Volar view of left hand demonstrates simple incomplete syndactyly between long finger and ring finger. Immediate postoperative results are shown. Note markings.
Dorsal view of left hand demonstrates simple incom Dorsal view of left hand demonstrates simple incomplete syndactyly between long finger and ring finger. Immediate postoperative results are shown.
Simple incomplete syndactyly between long finger a Simple incomplete syndactyly between long finger and ring finger. Immediate postoperative results are shown.
Simple incomplete syndactyly between long finger a Simple incomplete syndactyly between long finger and ring finger. Immediate postoperative results are shown.
Simple incomplete syndactyly between long finger a Simple incomplete syndactyly between long finger and ring finger. One month later, hand has sufficiently deepened web. However, hypertrophic and hyperpigmented scars are still present along incision line.
One month later, hand has sufficiently deepened we One month later, hand has sufficiently deepened web. However, hypertrophic and hyperpigmented scars are still present along incision line.

Many variations and techniques have been devised for syndactyly release; Upton reviewed their descriptions and their history. [26] Regardless of the techniques used, the following general principles must be applied to achieve optimal results:

  • Use loupe magnification (2.5× or greater)
  • Use zigzag lines to distribute the lines of contraction; avoid straight lines
  • Use well-vascularized flaps to reconstruct the web space
  • Defatting of the interdigital space should be judicious; otherwise, the neurovascular pedicles may be injured
  • Release only one side of a finger at a time during the initial syndactyly release, and whenever possible, perform bilateral syndactyly releases, particularly in children younger than 18 months, when bilateral surgeries are well tolerated
  • Harvest full-thickness skin grafts from a hairless region that has a reasonable color match
  • During dissection, a tourniquet is crucial for achieving a bloodless field so as to avoid damage to the neurovascular structures
  • Achieve hemostasis in the wound base to optimize survival of the skin graft
  • Use only absorbable sutures, such as 5-0 mild chromic catgut or synthetic rapidly absorbable sutures, which may cause less inflammation

In cases involving release of complex syndactyly, temporary external fixation may be useful in stabilizing the commissure and facilitating surgical wound care. [27]

Skin grafts

Full-thickness skin grafts are preferable to split-thickness skin grafts because the former are less likely to contract over time and because they usually grow with the patient. The most common full-thickness skin-graft donor site is the lateral inguinal region close to the anterior superior iliac crest. This area is generally hairless, even in the hirsute adult. The skin is taken as an ellipse, and the donor site is closed primarily. Morbidity associated with this donor site, particularly the infection rate, is low. The incision heals nicely and is usually inconspicuous (see the image below).

Skin-graft donor site. Donor site in right inguina Skin-graft donor site. Donor site in right inguinal region has healed well 10 months after patient's syndactyly surgery. Graft harvested was able to resurface two web spaces during bilateral web-space releases. Incision is inconspicuous.

Because it may be necessary to harvest a large skin graft from this area, it is permissible to extend the donor site into the hair-bearing skin. It is important to thin the graft so as to decrease the chance of hair growth in the graft, which can occur during puberty. The parents should be advised that hair growth in the skin graft is a possibility, particularly in male patients. [28]

In complex syndactyly, such as Apert syndrome, in which a pedicled groin flap may be used later for resurfacing the interdigital space after the central syndactyly release, the surgeon may want to consider harvesting the full-thickness skin graft from the midline suprapubic region through a Pfannenstiel incision.

Nonpigmented skin can also be harvested from the plantar surface of the foot or from the hypothenar region of the hand. In the nonambulating child, the plantar incision can be closed primarily and is well tolerated with minimal morbidity. Both hypothenar and plantar donor sites for the skin graft are limited in quantity and can therefore be used to resurface only small wounds.

Another source of skin, in an uncircumcised male, is the prepuce. This skin also tends to hyperpigment over time and may not be available if the patient has already been circumcised.

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Postoperative Care

A well-molded bulky dressing is applied to the upper extremity. A generous amount of antibiotic ointment is directly applied to the skin graft, and the incisions are followed by a nonadherent dressing material such as Adaptik. (Because petroleum-impregnated cotton gauze products tend to dry quickly and can become adherent to the skin grafts with the first dressing change, the surgeon may want to avoid them.)

This step is followed by gently laying cotton fluffs within the web space. The upper extremity is then placed into a well-padded, long-arm bulky dressing, which is reinforced with a long-arm fiberglass splint. The skin-graft donor site is closed with absorbable sutures and steristrips and covered with gauze and clear cellophane adhesive. [29]

The parents are instructed to remove the skin-graft donor site dressing on postoperative day 3. They may then start bathing the child and can get the donor site wet, with encouragement to wash this area with soap and water. The long arm splint is kept in place and is removed at 2 weeks. The utmost care should be taken when the dressing is removed. If there is any concern about the possibility of loss of the skin graft with an early dressing change at 2 weeks, the dressing is left in place for 3 weeks.

If any concern exists about the child being unable to tolerate a dressing change in the office, the dressing is removed intraoperatively, and the parents are directed to perform daily wound care. The parents change the dressing once a day for 2 weeks, gently washing their hands before each dressing change. During these changes, an antibiotic ointment is applied with a cotton swab to gently agitate any dried blood or residual drainage that is adhering to the sutures. The web spaces are dressed with 2 × 2 cotton gauze, laid into the web space to prevent scar adhesions and synechiae. This dressing is then reinforced with 2-in. (5-cm) gauze.

Stockinettes are then applied over the arms and secured to the patient's shirt at the shoulder with safety pins to prevent the patient from chewing or taking the dressing off. If the bandages stick to the sutures or to the wound, the parents are instructed to pour warm water with peroxide as needed to lift the dressing off atraumatically. The parents are instructed about scar management starting 6 weeks after surgery.

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Complications

Complications of syndactyly release include the following [30] :

  • Recurrence of syndactyly
  • Finger ischemia
  • Contracture
  • Various skin-graft complications

Recurrence of syndactyly

Distal migration of the web (ie, web creep) can occur, even after successful release. The reported incidence has ranged from 7.5% to 60%. [9, 31, 32]

The causes are multifactorial. If recurrence appears early, it is usually the result of the presence of synechiae between the incision lines and, most likely, poor take of the skin graft. Because of this, making certain that the interdigital spaces remain separated is important in the early postoperative period.

Also, it is important to create a dorsal flap that is well vascularized at the tip, where it will be sutured to the base of the web. The flap is important in providing tissue that has skin elasticity that with adapt with the growth of the finger. Skin-graft loss also can contribute to web creep by increasing the possibility of scar contracture.

However, the major reason why web creep occurs is the discrepant growth rates between the scar and the surrounding tissue, leading to the appearance of an incomplete simple syndactyly. Depending on the severity of the web creep (see the image below), further release, as well as skin grafting, may be necessary. If this is left untreated, angulation and malrotation can occur.

Hand of 23-year-old patient who underwent releases Hand of 23-year-old patient who underwent releases of simple complete syndactyly of both left third and fourth web spaces during infancy. Patient noticed progressive shortening of web space and found it hard to wear protective gloves, necessary for employment in fishing industry. This resulted in poor fit of the glove and chronic irritation of web. Note radial deviation of small finger due to contracture from patient's first surgery. Web space was deepened with local flaps and full-thickness skin grafts from left groin.

The most common causes of a web not being deep enough are tip necrosis of the dorsal flap and skin-graft loss. In such cases, re-release and additional skin grafting are required. During adolescence, the web may migrate distally (ie, creep), in that the skin graft may not grow in a manner commensurate with the growth spurt of a patient. Release may be required if this complication interferes with function.

Finger ischemia

Although rare, finger ischemia can occur if a developmental anomaly with the digital vessels is present or if a digital vessel is damaged. This is why only one side of the finger should be operated on during initial syndactyly release.

Contracture

Occasionally, despite the surgeon's best effort and the creation of well-planned flaps, a contracture develops along the length of the incision line. This can result in a scar contracture and angulation of the finger. To prevent further angulation, a Z-plasty or skin graft will be needed to release this contracture (see the images below).

Hand of 26-month-old patient who underwent release Hand of 26-month-old patient who underwent release of complete simple syndactyly between left ring and long fingers with flaps and full-thickness skin grafts at 7 months of age. Patient developed hypertrophic scarring along incisions. This persisted despite conservative treatment with topical steroid cream and scar massage. Contracture was present mostly along ring finger, causing tethering of distal ring finger with mild radial deviation. Contracture was released with multiple Z-plasties and web deepened with small full-thickness skin graft.
Hand of 26-month-old patient who underwent release Hand of 26-month-old patient who underwent release of complete simple syndactyly between left ring and long fingers with flaps and full-thickness skin grafts at 7 months of age. Patient developed hypertrophic scarring along incisions. This persisted despite conservative treatment with topical steroid cream and scar massage. Contracture was present mostly along ring finger, causing tethering of distal ring finger with mild radial deviation.
Hand of 26-month-old patient who underwent release Hand of 26-month-old patient who underwent release of complete simple syndactyly between left ring and long fingers with flaps and full-thickness skin grafts at 7 months of age. Patient developed hypertrophic scarring along incisions. This persisted despite conservative treatment with topical steroid cream and scar massage. Contracture was present mostly along ring finger, causing tethering of distal ring finger with mild radial deviation. Contracture was released with multiple Z-plasties and web deepened with small full-thickness skin graft.
Hand of 26-month-old patient who underwent release Hand of 26-month-old patient who underwent release of complete simple syndactyly between left ring and long fingers with flaps and full-thickness skin grafts at 7 months of age. Patient developed hypertrophic scarring along incisions. This persisted despite conservative treatment with topical steroid cream and scar massage. Contracture was present mostly along ring finger, causing tethering of distal ring finger with mild radial deviation. Contracture was released with multiple Z-plasties and web deepened with small full-thickness skin graft.
Hand of 26-month-old patient who underwent release Hand of 26-month-old patient who underwent release of complete simple syndactyly between left ring and long fingers with flaps and full-thickness skin grafts at 7 months of age. Patient developed hypertrophic scarring along incisions. This persisted despite conservative treatment with topical steroid cream and scar massage. Contracture was present mostly along ring finger, causing tethering of distal ring finger with mild radial deviation. Contracture was released with multiple Z-plasties and web deepened with small full-thickness skin graft. At 3 months after surgery, patient was doing well and showed no evidence of recurrence.
Hand of 26-month-old patient who underwent release Hand of 26-month-old patient who underwent release of complete simple syndactyly between left ring and long fingers with flaps and full-thickness skin grafts at 7 months of age. Patient developed hypertrophic scarring along incisions. This persisted despite conservative treatment with topical steroid cream and scar massage. Contracture was present mostly along ring finger, causing tethering of distal ring finger with mild radial deviation. Contracture was released with multiple Z-plasties and web deepened with small full-thickness skin graft. At 3 months after surgery, patient was doing well and showed no evidence of recurrence.

Scar contractures often develop in the web space within the first 6 months, making the webs more shallow, even if no skin-graft loss has occurred and the flaps have been correctly designed. The author usually recommends that the parents massage the webs to help with scar remodeling. Parents are also encouraged to place elastic bandages (eg, Coban bandages) in the webs to stretch them. The judicious use of steroid creams can also help with tight scars.

Skin-graft complications

Partial skin-graft loss results in an open wound that heals by secondary intention. As in any wound that heals by secondary intention, the contracture forces are considerable. The deforming forces can be so great that they produce angulation of the fingers, which requires further corrective surgery. Obtaining complete hemostasis in the wound base before the application of the skin graft is extremely important, as is securely sewing the skin graft. Proper postoperative dressings are also important to the success of the skin graft.

Because of the zigzag incisions and the need for skin grafts, the finger has a patchwork appearance. In a light-colored individual, this difference is not noticeable. However, in a patient who has medium-to-dark pigmentation, spears or islands of pigmented skin in the usually nonpigmented palmar surface can be the result (see the images below). [33] To avoid this effect, nonpigmented skin grafts may be harvested from either the plantar surfaces of the feet or the hypothenar regions of the hands.

Hand of 18-year-old patient of Mediterranean herit Hand of 18-year-old patient of Mediterranean heritage who had undergone multiple syndactyly releases with full-thickness skin graft harvested from groin during infancy. Skin graft can be observed as hyperpigmented patches within web space. Some parts of full-thickness skin graft also were noted to be hair-bearing. Parents should be informed of potential sequelae of full-thickness skin grafts as infant matures.
Hand of 18-year-old patient of Mediterranean herit Hand of 18-year-old patient of Mediterranean heritage who had undergone multiple syndactyly releases with full-thickness skin graft harvested from groin during infancy. Skin graft can be observed as hyperpigmented patches within web space. Some parts of full-thickness skin graft also were noted to be hair-bearing. Parents should be informed of potential sequelae of full-thickness skin grafts as infant matures.

Usually, the lateral groin or inguinal region is hairless, particularly in females. Because the full-thickness skin is harvested at a young age, before the child has developed secondary hair growth, the skin grafts may start producing hair at puberty. This occurs more often in male patients. Inform the parents and patient of this possibility. If hair growth occurs, the hair may be trimmed, or the patient can undergo depilatory treatment.

Occasionally, if the problematic skin graft is small and if laxity is present in the surrounding native skin, the skin graft can be excised directly and the wound closed primarily. Alternatively, the patient may be offered a repeat skin-graft procedure with skin obtained from a part of the body that does not produce hair.

US complications data

McQuillan et al analysed data from the National Surgical Quality Improvement Program (NSQIP) to assess the incidence of acute complications within 30 days of surgery for congenital hand differences (including simple syndactyly, complex syndactyly, and polydactyly). [34]  In the 1656  cases, the overall incidence of complications was 2.2%; the most common of these was superficial surgical-site infection (SSI; 1.7%), followed by related readmission (0.3%). The incidence of complications was higher in patients undergoing complex syndactyly repair (5.2% vs 2.3% for all others).

Canizares et al used the Pediatric Health Information System (PHIS) database to characterize complications and cost associated with syndactyly surgery in 38 US pediatric hospitals. [35] In the 2047 patients identified, the postoperative complication rate was 1.9%, with a postoperative infection rate of 1.6% and a surgical complication rate of 0.3%. The median adjusted standardized cost was $4112.50. Patients with more than one diagnosis had a 19 times higher risk of complications than those with a single diagnosis of syndactyly, and their hospital costs were 13% higher.

Chouairi et al used data from the NSQIP Pediatric database to assess 956 syndactyly cases, evaluating patient demographics, surgical factors, perioperative outcomes, and risk factors. [36] Patients of plastic surgeons had significantly more airway abnormalities and shorter operating times than those of orthopedic surgeons. Patients with complex syndactyly had significantly more ventilator dependence, tracheostomy, and comorbidities than those with simple syndactyly, as well as longer operating times and a higher rate of superficial SSI. Overall, syndactyly repair was found to be a safe procedure with few major or minor reconstructive complications, regardless of surgical specialty or syndactyly type.

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Long-Term Monitoring

At the time of the first dressing change, the skin graft has become adherent, and the child may start to use his or her fingers as tolerated, although the parents are instructed to place a stockinette over the arm to prevent the child from inadvertently contaminating and injuring the site.

The author usually waits for 6 months before performing the next syndactyly release or revision.

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