Authors of section


Florian Gebhard, Phil Kregor, Chris Oliver

Executive Editor

Chris Colton

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Lateral/anterolateral approach to the distal femur

1. Principles

General considerations

The lateral approach to the distal femur allows for visualization, reduction and fixation of simple articular fractures of the distal femur. More complex fractures (particularly those involving the medial femoral condyle) are better exposed with a lateral parapatellar approach.

The lateral approach relies on an atraumatic elevation of the vastus lateralis from the lateral aspect of the distal femur, and a lateral arthrotomy for joint visualization. Articular reduction and lateral plate application can both be achieved with the same approach. Additionally, the approach can be extended proximally (see the lateral approach to the femoral shaft).

The approach can also be used without an arthrotomy if the articular surface is not fractured.

Prophylactic antibiotics

Antibiotics are administered according to local antibiotic policy and specific patient requirements.

Many surgeons use gram-positive prophylactic antibiotic cover for closed fractures, adding gram-negative prophylactic cover for open fractures. Always remember that antibiotic therapy will never compensate for poor surgical technique.

2. Skin incision

Begin the skin incision in the mid-lateral line of the femoral shaft and curve it anteriorly over the lateral femoral condyle, towards the tibial tubercle. The proximal starting point for the skin incision depends on the most proximal extent of the fracture.

The need for a distal extension of the skin incision depends on whether or not an arthrotomy needs to be performed. If joint visualization is required, the incision is carried to the level of the tibial tubercle (dashed line). If an arthrotomy is not necessary, you can stop the skin incision approximately 1-2 cm distal to the joint line.

Lateral/anterolateral approach

3. Division of the iliotibial band

Divide the iliotibial band (tract) in line with the skin incision. Distally, the fibers slope anteriorly towards the tibial tubercle. The incision through the iliotibial band should follow the fiber orientation.

Lateral/anterolateral approach

4. Elevation of vastus lateralis

The muscle fibers of the vastus lateralis are minimal in the distal 8-10 cm of the femur. Incise the muscle fascia investing the vastus lateralis just anterior to the lateral intermuscular septum and elevate the muscle fibers off the septum, working from distal to proximal. This is most easily accomplished by use of a large elevator.

Lateral/anterolateral approach

Retract the vastus lateralis anteromedially. Several perforating vessels of the profunda femoris artery and vein have to be ligated. Failure to do so will result in excessive bleeding.

Lateral/anterolateral approach

5. Joint capsule arthrotomy for articular surface visualization (optional)

For cases in which the articular surface needs to be exposed, perform a joint capsule arthrotomy.

Distally, incise the joint capsule over the anterior third of the lateral femoral condyle. This joint arthrotomy can be carried distally as far as the lateral meniscus.

To facilitate exposure of the articular surface, use a blunt angled retractor. Take care to avoid excessive tension on the patellar tendon, especially in osteoporotic individuals.

Lateral/anterolateral approach

6. Wound closure

Close any joint capsule arthrotomy with absorbable sutures.

Proximally, close the fascia of the vastus lateralis with a running absorbable suture or interrupted sutures.

Close the iliotibial band with absorbable sutures. Close the skin and subcutaneous tissues in a routine manner.

The use of suction drains may be considered.

Lateral/anterolateral approach