Clavicle (Collarbone) Fractures.
Clavicle fractures are relatively common making up 5% of all fractures. Fractures are typically associated with a fall on the shoulder. It is a common sporting injury from contact sports such as rugby as well as other activities with an increased risk of falls such as cycling or horse riding.
Fractures of the Clavicle are common in children in whom they rarely require treatment beyond symptomatic relief with a broad arm sling or PolyslingTM.
Most Clavicle fractures occur in the middle third of the clavicle (Mid-shaft clavicle fractures) (70%). Fractures may also occur of the distal Clavicle (outer third) (25%) and the medial Clavicle inner third) (<5%).
Clavicle fractures are not a single entity and may have varying outcomes depending on the location and type of fracture . The management should be carefully chosen dependent both on the fracture and the individual who has the sustained the fracture.
The Clavicle lies anteriorly (at the front) at the base of the neck. It acts to strut the shoulder out to the side away from the midline. It also provides a degree of protection to the important nerves and blood vessels which lie just behind it. Laterally (at the outer end) it articulates (or forms a joint) with the Acromion (or tip of the shoulder blade). Medially (or at the inner end) the Clavicle articulates (or forms a joint) with the Sternum (or breastbone) and the first rib.
There is typically pain felt over the Clavicle with associated tenderness at the fracture site.
There may be a degree of deformity associated with the Clavicle itself. The Clavicle is largely subcutaneous and the fracture may be clearly visible or a bend or bump may be seen.
There may be an appreciable deformity of the shoulder. The shoulder itself may appear to be lying lower and nearer to the midline than the other side.
The skin may be puckered or tented as a consequence of the fracture end lying close to surface and becoming caught on the undersurface tissues. There may be concern that the fracture end may penetrate the skin. Although this may occur it is rare.
The ends of the fracture may be felt to move or grind against each other.
Bruising and swelling
There may be marked bruising around the fracture site or the bruising may appear lower down the chest as the bruising tracks down under the effect of gravity.
Rarely there may damage to the nerves and blood vessels which lie below the clavicle.
The diagnosis is often apparent from the history and examination. If the fracture is not displaced the diagnosis may be more difficult. Additional injuries may need to be excluded.
Plain radiographs (X-Rays)
Investigations in the form of plain radiographs are typically requested. It may be image both the clavicle and the shoulder. The Clavicle should be imaged obliquely as the degree of displacement may be underestimated on a single projection.
Computerised tomography (CT)
Computerised tomography is sometimes arranged for acute fractures but is more commonly used in the assessment of possible nonunions or malunions.
Midshaft clavicle fractures:
This is the most common type of Clavicle fracture. It is may take 8 to 12 weeks for the fracture to unite but it may take up to 6 months. There is a small but definite risk that the fracture will not unite or go on to a non-union (approximately 15%).
Treatment of mid-shaft clavicle fractures.
Non operative treatment:
The majority of clavicle fractures can be treated with a supportive PolyslingTM type sling. Alternative immobilisation with a brace or figure of eight support can be used. There is little evidence to support improved outcome with any particular method of support. The support is typically used for 4 to 6 weeks.
Analgesia and anti-inflammatories (painkillers)
Anti-inflammatories eg: Diclofenac, Ibuprofen or VolatrolTM may be helpful in addition to simple painkillers (analgesia) eg: Paracetamol.
Physiotherapy and Rehabilitation
Rehabilitation guidance is often helpful to maintain range of movement while the fracture is healing and then to improve strength and function once the fracture has healed.
Midshaft Clavicle fractures may be stabilised surgically using open reduction and internal fixation (using a plate and screws) or intramedullary fixation (using a rod passed down the centre of the bone). There are advantages and disadvantages to each technique.
Link to additional information on Clavicle fixation surgery.
Decision making – operative vs nonoperative management:
Given that mid-shaft Clavicle fractures with little displacement usually heal well these can typically be satisfactorily treated without surgery. However, in certain circumstances including the presence of significant displacement or shortening (overlap) of the clavicle there is increasing evidence to support early surgical fixation. This surgical stabilisation may reduce the associated deformity or malunion and reduce the risk of a non-union with certain fracture patterns. It must be remembered that no surgical intervention is without the risk of complications.
Open fractures (a wound over the fracture) require surgery.
Displacement (complete displacement makes the fracture less likely to unite)
Age (older less likely to unite)
Gender (female less likely to unite)
Tenting of the skin or risk of penetration of the skin
Comminution (fragmentation less likely to unite)
Fractures of the Scapula (shoulder blade) or proximal Humerus (arm)
Associated nerve and blood vessel injury.
High velocity or energy injury
Sporting participation type and level.
Risk of re-fracture or re-injury.
Smoking (increases risks of surgery and reduces the probability of the fracture healing).
Possible benefits of surgery include:
Earlier return to activities.
Less discomfort once the fracture is stabilised.
Improved probability of fracture healing and reduced risk of non-union in certain fracture patterns.
More normal biomechanics and power.
Better overall appearance.
Possible risks of surgery include:
A scar that may be tender and visible.
Numbness beyond the scar, affecting the upper chest but not the breast.
Metalwork that may be prominent and require later removal.
Infection and problems with wound healing.
Failure of the fixation.
Non-union (failure of the fracture to unite despite surgery).
Anaesthetic risks these include clots in the legs (Deep Vein Thrombosis, DVT) or lungs (Pulmonary Embolus, PE), heart attack (MI, Myocardial Infarction) and stroke (CVA, Cerebro-Vascular Accident)
The mid-shaft Clavicle fractures typically unite with a degree of malunion, that is with a degree of deformity of the bone. This may not be noticeable without a radiograph (or X-Ray) or may be apparent with the presence of a prominent bony lump over the fracture and narrowing of the midline to shoulder distance. If the fracture heals with significant overlap or shortening of the clavicle there may be functional impairment and loss of power on high demand activities particularly overhead or at reach.
If the fracture goes on to heal but with a malunion which causes problems the Clavicle may need surgery to divide and re-fix it in a more normal position, typically with a plate and screws and sometimes using bone graft from the pelvis (hip bone).
There will be a proportion of midshaft Clavicle fractures that do no unite (heal) after non-operative treatment by 3-6 months. Some of these will not cause significant symptoms and can be left alone. Others will continue to give problems including pain and a sensation of movement at the fracture site. In this situation surgery in the form of fixation of the fracture, typically with a plate screws, may be required. It may be necessary to use a bone graft typically from the pelvis (hip bone) to encourage the fracture to heal.
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J Bone Joint Surg Am. 2004 Jul;86-A(7):1359-65.
Nonoperative treatment compared with plate fixation of displaced midshaft clavicular fractures. Surgical technique.
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J Bone Joint Surg Am. 2008 Mar;90 Suppl 2 Pt 1:1-8.
Nonoperative Treatment Compared with Plate Fixation of Displaced Midshaft Clavicular Fractures: A Multicenter, Randomized Clinical Trial.
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