Nonoperative treatment of infrasyndesmotic ankle injuries is usually only indicated for minimally displaced, stable fractures. However, if the facilities and the skill for safe operative treatment are not available, nonoperative treatment is safer, and if performed correctly and skillfully, it can lead to acceptable results.
In any situation, a displaced ankle fracture should be reduced as soon as possible, even if surgery is planned for the near future as this decreases pain and swelling.
If severe swelling is present, the reduced ankle fracture should be immobilized temporarily with a plaster of Paris (POP) back-slab, and elevated on several pillows.
In the absence of the facility for general anesthesia, reduction can be achieved under sedation (e.g., Pethidine plus Diazepam), and/or intraarticular local anesthesia (Lignocaine 2% 15ml).
The intraarticular injection of local anesthetic is introduced anteromedially, between the tendons of tibialis anterior and extensor hallucis longus, medial to the anterior tibial neurovascular bundle.
Infrasyndesmotic fractures are caused by adduction of the talus in the ankle mortise (Lauge-Hansen adduction injury), resulting in lateral traction and medial compressive forces. The typical displacement is medial shift and varus angulation.
If x-rays are not available, it is safer to correct the deformity clinically, rather than to leave it unreduced.
Regard the injury as a two-part fracture between the lower leg (tibia and fibula) proximally, and the foot distally. The task will be to place the foot in correct alignment with the leg.
The aim of any reduction (early or late) is to correct the displacement.
Treat the patient as soon as possible, when the deformity is typical, late swelling has not yet appeared and adequate anesthesia can be administered.
Use gravity to help to reduce the fracture.
The patient lies supine on the table, with the lower leg hanging over the end of the table.
The reduction procedure involves holding the heel with the leg internally rotated, so that gravity tends to relocate the foot in a lateral direction.
Detailed reduction will be considered later.
If the patient presents late and there is no possibility to administer general anesthesia, so that the patient is not fully relaxed, but merely sedated, or has only local intraarticular analgesia, reduction will not be achieved by gravity alone.
Manual reduction is performed on the hanging leg, with the knee flexed to reduce the pull of the Achilles tendon.
The aim is to bring the foot into correct alignment with the lower leg.
If x-rays are not available, this is the only alignment reference available.
The medial malleolus has been pushed off by the adducting talus. The traction fracture of the lateral malleolus often leaves a lateral fibular shoulder.
If the lateral traction injury is purely ligamentous, or an osseo-ligamentous failure with fracture of the tip of the lateral malleolus, the lateral buttress is substantial.
Any anteroposterior (AP) displacement is corrected.
Hold the hindfoot firmly and gently pull both distally and forwards to correct any posterior displacement.
The heel then needs to be pressed upwards and laterally, buttressing the talus against the shoulder of the lateral malleolus.
The assistant stands on the medial side of the injured leg and maintains some flexion of the knee and the right angle position of the ankle, pressing gently on the knee and holding the big toe forwards in line with the patella.
The foot is also held in such a manner as to tend to pronate the foot.
This usually holds the reduction that has been achieved and allows the operator to apply the padding and the plaster cast.
Apply the plaster padding
Then, apply around the ankle one roll of POP (dipped in cold water to give more time until hardening), reduce the fracture and maintain it reduced until the POP skim is hard enough to hold the reduction.
Then complete the cast.
In undisplaced fractures, reduction is not necessary. The plaster cast will be applied on the hanging leg (knee flexed to 90 degrees and ankle held at 90 degrees).
First, apply the padding. This needs to be thicker over the malleoli and around the fibular head.
The cast should reach from the MTP joints of the toes to just below the knee joint, avoiding the top of the plaster being at the level of the neck of the fibula, where the common peroneal nerve crosses.
It is important to hold the plaster rolls correctly during application, so that they can be rolled on, rather than pulled on.
It is easier to start proximally, overlapping by half the width of the roll and moving down the lower leg to around the ankle and foot.
After the application of the second roll, whilst the plaster is still soft, final manipulation is done and the reduction held, with appropriate molding, until the plaster hardens. This may take 4 to 5 minutes, depending on the temperature of the water – colder water gives you more time.
The final two rolls are then applied, and further molding is performed to achieve the desired 3-point fixation.
When molding the cast, the same action as for reduction is repeated and held until the plaster is firm.
The principle of 3-point fixation within the cast needs to be applied. The two main molding points are created by gentle pressure over the medial hindfoot and above the lateral supramalleolar part of the lower leg.
The third point is created by molding the upper end of the cast around the leg, over the medial aspect of the leg.
The patient should be warned that the leg in the plaster will feel cool and moist. This is due to the evaporation of water from the plaster. Once the cast is dry, the moist, cold feeling will disappear.
During the evaporation period, the casted limb should remain exposed and not fully covered by blankets.
Remember that the plaster requires over 24 hours to reach full strength.
Any plaster, especially one without adequate padding, carries a risk of causing obstruction of circulation and compartment syndrome.
In case of inappropriate pain, especially on passive dorsiflexion or plantarflexion of the toes, the plaster and padding should be split immediately down to skin, over its whole length, and the leg watched carefully for rapid recovery. It is better to lose the reduction than to risk muscle necrosis.
If the slightest suspicion of compartment syndrome remains, the plaster needs to be removed and urgent dermatofasciotomy considered.
Elevate the lower leg on 2-3 pillows for 3-5 days.
X-ray control after reduction confirms the position, but must be repeated after 3-5 days. Redisplacement usually occurs during the early days, as the swelling subsides, and if diagnosed early enough, can often still be corrected non-operatively.
Analgesics and anti-inflammatory drugs should be prescribed, as necessary, during the first few weeks. If analgesia consumption is unexpectedly high, suspect redisplacement, or cast pressure on the skin.
If a cast becomes loose, it should be removed and replaced with a new one. If possible, wait until the fracture has become sticky (+/- 4 weeks) so that the reduction is not lost during the replacement procedure, but check regularly for redisplacement.
Fractures which did not initially have significant displacement are probably relatively stable and are unlikely to displace in a cast if patients take weight through that limb.
In fractures that required reduction, the plaster cast should not be removed before 9-12 weeks, or before the patient manages to walk pain-free with the cast. In fractures that did not require reduction, the period in the cast can be reduced at the discretion of the surgical decision-maker.
After removal of the cast, rehabilitation should involve dedicated ankle and foot mobilization for a prolonged period. At this stage, it is also advisable to give a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory preparation for several weeks.
If the patient complains of severe or increasing pain, the possibility of compartment syndrome or other circulatory disorders should be considered. The cast should be split or the brace loosened. If this does not result in a rapid improvement, the cast or brace should be removed.
Mobilize the patient as soon as possible. Weight bearing is allowed in stable fractures.
Remove the plaster if the patient feels pain, and check the soft tissues for pressure sores.
If the cast loosens, it should be changed and renewed. The cast is removed after 6 to 8 weeks.
Physiotherapy is then usually necessary for 2-4 weeks.
In some patients, additional swelling occurs after removal of the cast. This can be treated with an elastic bandage, or a compression stocking.
At 3 months, if there are symptoms of lateral instability, either inversion stress x-rays or MRI can be used to investigate lateral ligament integrity.