Open Fractures

Updated: May 11, 2022
  • Author: Erin Pichiotino, MD; Chief Editor: Murali Poduval, MBBS, MS, DNB  more...
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Practice Essentials

The procedure for evaluation and management of open fractures is best described as a set of principles that has evolved over time, often in relation to advances in wartime care of military personnel. These principles involve both initial management and subsequent surgical intervention. [1, 2, 3, 4]

The first step is accurate diagnosis and documentation of the mechanism of injury. Appropriate coverage of the wound and splinting of the fracture are performed in conjunction with initiation of appropriate antibiotic therapy and tetanus prophylaxis. Broad coverage for gram-positive organisms with the addition of gram-negative coverage for higher-grade injuries has become the most common choice for initiation of antibiotic therapy after an open fracture.

Urgent surgical intervention typically follows and involves both soft-tissue and bone management. Adjuncts to the care of open fractures have evolved and often involve delivery of antibiotics or metabolically important substances to the local fracture environment.

These principles are generally well established and accepted across the orthopedic community, but in some respects, controversy still exists regarding the details.

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The risk of a fracture being open is related to the amount of soft-tissue coverage in that region of the body and to the amount of energy imparted to that region. For example, the tibia has a long medial aspect that is subcutaneous, and therefore, it is “easier” for trauma to the lower leg to expose the bone and fracture site. Conversely, the femur is surrounded by thick muscle layers circumferentially and, therefore, is less likely to be exposed after a similar amount of force to the thigh.

Open fractures pose some unique risks beyond those encountered with similar closed fractures that may occur with similar amounts of force. The greatest problem is the risk of infection. Diaphyseal bone loss in excess of 3 cm presents a complex set of problems as well. If the open fracture was caused by penetrating trauma, direct injury to major neurovascular structures may be more likely, thereby affecting the prognosis for limb function.

Direct inoculation of the tissue is a basic issue in the pathophysiology of open fracture management. Furthermore, bacteria can colonize wounds at later stages of care, being introduced into the wound at subsequent dressing changes or repeat debridements prior to definitive wound closure. Gustilo and Anderson reported that 50.7% of their 158 patients had a positive wound culture upon initial evaluation. [5]  Another 31 patients that were initially culture-negative had a subsequent positive culture at the time of their definitive closure.

Devitalized tissue results from the energy imparted to the body. A crushing injury can impair the local immune response, with local ischemia playing a large role in this process. Ischemia may also occur by direct trauma to the large vessels and/or microcirculation. Important indirect causes of ischemia include increased myofascial compartment pressures, increased vascular permeability, and the use of vasoconstrictive medications during resuscitation.