Nonoperatively treated fractures of the humeral diaphysis have a high rate of union with good functional results. However, there are clinical situations in which operative treatment is more appropriate, and, though interest in plate osteosynthesis has decreased, intramedullary nailing has gained popularity in recent years. We report the results of treating fractures of the humeral diaphysis with a prefabricated brace that permits full motion of all joints and progressive use of the injured extremity.

Between 1978 and 1990, 922 patients who had a fracture of the humeral diaphysis were treated with a prefabricated brace that permitted motion of adjacent joints. The injured extremities were initially stabilized in an above-the-elbow cast or a coaptation splint for an average of nine days (range, zero to thirty-five days) prior to the application of the prefabricated brace. Orthopaedic residents, supervised by teaching staff, provided follow-up care in a special outpatient clinic. Radiographs were made at each follow-up visit until the fracture healed.

We were able to follow 620 (67 percent) of the 922 patients. Four hundred and sixty-five (75 percent) of the fractures were closed, and 155 (25 percent) were open. Nine patients (6 percent) who had an open fracture and seven (less than 2 percent) who had a closed fracture had a nonunion after bracing. In 87 percent of the 565 patients for whom anteroposterior radiographs were available, the fracture healed in less than 16 degrees of varus angulation, and in 81 percent of the 546 for whom lateral radiographs were available, it healed in less than 16 degrees of anterior angulation. At the time of brace removal, 98 percent of the patients had limitation of shoulder motion of 25 degrees or less. We were unable to follow most of the patients long-term, as they did not return to the clinic once the fracture had united and use of the brace had been discontinued.

Functional bracing for the treatment of fractures of the humeral diaphysis is associated with a high rate of union, particularly when used for closed fractures. The residual angular deformities are usually functionally and aesthetically acceptable. The present study illustrates the difficulties encountered in carrying out long-term follow-up of indigent patients treated in charity hospitals that are affiliated with teaching institutions. These difficulties are also becoming common with patients insured under managed-care organizations and are frequent in our peripatetic population.