Tibia and Fibula Fracture in the ED

Updated: Nov 30, 2017
  • Author: Jeffrey G Norvell, MD, MBA, RDMS; Chief Editor: Trevor John Mills, MD, MPH  more...
  • Print

Practice Essentials

Lower leg fractures include fractures of the tibia and fibula. Of these two bones, the tibia is the only weightbearing bone. Fractures of the tibia generally are associated with fibula fracture, because the force is transmitted along the interosseous membrane to the fibula. Causes include direct forces such as those caused by falls and motor vehicle accidents and indirect or rotational forces [1, 2, 3, 4, 5]

The skin and subcutaneous tissue are very thin over the anterior and medial tibia, and as a result, a significant number of fractures to the lower leg are open fractures. Even in closed fractures, the thin, soft tissue can become compromised. In contrast, the fibula is well covered by soft tissue over most of its course with the exception of the lateral malleolus.

The tibia and fibula articulate at the proximal tibia-fibular syndesmosis. Fractures of the tibia can involve the tibial plateau, tibial tubercle, tibial eminence, proximal tibia, tibial shaft, and tibial plafond. The common peroneal nerve crosses the fibular neck. This nerve is susceptible to injury from a fibular neck fracture, the pressure of a splint, or during surgical repair. This can result in foot drop and sensation abnormalities.

Delayed union, nonunion, and arthritis may occur. Among the long bones, the tibia is the most common site of fracture nonunion. Limb loss may occur as a result of severe soft-tissue trauma, neurovascular compromise, popliteal artery injury, compartment syndrome, or infection such as gangrene or osteomyelitis. Popliteal artery injury is a particularly serious injury that threatens the limb and is easily overlooked.

When examining a patient for a lower leg fracture, one should first examine the patient for edema, ecchymosis, and point tenderness. Gross deformities should be noted and splinted. Perform radiographs of the knee, tibia/fibula, and ankle as indicated. A careful neurovascular assessment should be performed, and an emergent fracture reduction should be performed if neurovascular deficits are present. A careful examination should be performed for open wounds. Open fractures require antibiotics and an emergent orthopedic consultation.

Tetanus vaccination should be updated, and appropriate antibiotics should be given in a timely manner. Some recommend antibiotics within 3 hours of the accident. [1]

In a study of compartment syndrome associated with tibial fracture, the odds of compartment syndrome increased by 1.67 per 10% increase in the ratio of fracture length to tibial length when considering all fractures. Compartment syndrome was most likely to occur with plateau fractures, at 12% (shaft fractures, 3%; pilon fractures, 2%). [6]

See the fracture image below.

Shown is an intra-articular fracture of the medial Shown is an intra-articular fracture of the medial condyle of the tibial plateau.

The AO/OTA Fracture and Dislocation Classification can be used in diagnosing specific forms of long bone fractures. [7, 8, 9]

For more information, see Medscape's Trauma Resource Center. For excellent patient education resources, visit eMedicineHealth's First Aid and Injuries Center. Also, see eMedicineHealth's patient education article Broken Leg.



Fractures of the tibia are the most common long bone fractures. The annual incidence of open fractures of long bones is estimated to be 11.5 per 100,000 persons, with 40% occurring in the lower limb. [10] The most common fracture of the lower limb occurs at the tibial diaphysis. [11] Isolated midshaft or proximal fibula fractures are uncommon.

Toddler fracture (distal spiral fracture of the tibia) is most common in children aged 9 months to 3 years. The majority of uncomplicated toddler fractures of the tibia do not need an orthopaedic surgeon's intervention or follow-up. In a study of the National Pediatric Trauma Registry for children and adolescents with compartment syndrome over a 51-month period, 133  cases were identified. Boys outnumbered girls 4 to 1, the median age was 12 years, and peak incidence was in patients aged 10 to 14 years. [12, 13, 14]

Tibial plateau fractures are common in the elderly population after a low-energy mechanism. Fractures in elderly patients may be complicated by osteoporosis, osteoarthritis, and medical comorbidities. [15]