The advantages of early fracture fixation in patients with multiple injuries have been challenged recently, particularly in patients with head injury. External fixation (EF) has been used to stabilize pelvic fractures after multiple injury. It potentially offers similar benefits to intramedullary nail (IMN) in long-bone fractures and may obviate some of the risks. We report on the use of EF as a temporary fracture fixation in a group of patients with multiple injuries and with femoral shaft fractures.

Retrospective review of charts and registry data of patients admitted to our Level 1 trauma center July of 1995 to June of 1998. Forty-three patients initially treated with EF of the femur were compared to 284 patients treated with primary IMN of the femur.

Patients treated with EF had more severe injuries with significantly higher Injury Severity Scores (26.8 vs. 16.8) and required significantly more fluid (11.9 vs. 6.2 liters) and blood (1.5 vs. 1.0 liters) in the initial 24 hours. Glasgow Coma Scale score was lower (p < 0.01) in those treated with EF (11 vs. 14.2). Twelve patients (28%) had head injuries severe enough to require intracranial pressure monitoring. All 12 required therapy for intracranial pressure control with mannitol (100%), barbiturates (75%), and/or hyperventilation (75%). Most patients had more than one contraindication to IMN, including head injury in 46% of cases, hemodynamic instability in 65%, thoracoabdominal injuries in 51%, and/or other serious injuries in 46%, most often multiple orthopedic injuries. Median operating room time for EF was 35 minutes with estimated blood loss of 90 mL. IMN was performed in 35 of 43 patients at a mean of 4.8 days after EF. Median operating room time for IMN was 135 minutes with an estimated blood loss of 400 mL. One patient died before IMN. One other patient with a mangled extremity was treated with amputation after EF. There was one complication of EF, i.e., bleeding around a pin site, which was self-limited. Four patients in the EF group died, three from head injuries and one from acute organ failure. No death was secondary to the fracture treatment selected. One patient who had EF followed by IMN had bone infection and another had acute hardware failure.

EF is a viable alternative to attain temporary rigid stabilization in patients with multiple injuries. It is rapid, causes negligible blood loss, and can be followed by IMN when the patient is stabilized. There were minimal orthopedic complications.