Original Research

An Update on Management of Syndesmosis Injury: A National US Database Study

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We conducted a study to determine the incidence of syndesmotic injury and stabilization within various ankle fracture patterns along with the rate of syndesmotic implant removal. All data were obtained from a publicly available for-fee healthcare database, the PearlDiver Patient Records Database. Current Procedural Terminology (CPT) codes were used to search the database for cases of fixation of lateral malleolus, bimalleolar, and trimalleolar fractures in addition to syndesmotic fixation and implant removal. Open reduction and internal fixation (ORIF) was performed for an ankle injury in 54,767 patients during 2007 to 2011. Total number of ORIF procedures was higher with each decade of life: 3206 cases in patients younger than 20 years, and 10,609 cases in patients 70 to 79 years old. Frequency of syndesmotic fixation increased significantly with ORIF of all ankle fractures (P < .0001). Hardware removal decreased throughout the study period. Incidence of syndesmotic injuries and rate of operative management trended upward over the study period, and rate of hardware removal decreased.



Acute ankle injuries are common problems treated by orthopedic surgeons. In the United States, nearly 2 million ankle sprains occur each year,1 and ankle fractures account for 9% to 18% of all fractures treated in emergency departments.2,3 Ankle injuries that involve the syndesmotic ligaments may result in instability and require specific treatment beyond fixation of the malleolar fractures.

The usual mechanism of syndesmotic injury is external rotation of the ankle with hyperdorsiflexion of a pronated or supinated foot.4,5 Syndesmotic injuries are estimated to occur in up to 10% of ankle sprains6 and up to 23% of all ankle fractures.7 Overall US incidence of syndesmotic injury is estimated at 6445 injuries per year.8 Syndesmotic injury occurs in 39% to 45% of supination-external rotation IV ankle fractures.9,10 Pronation-external rotation ankle fractures have the highest rate of syndesmotic injury. Syndesmotic injury may be less common in other types of malleolar fracture, but the exact incidence has not been reliably reported.

Traditionally, isolated nondisplaced syndesmotic injuries are treated nonoperatively, and syndesmotic injuries with concomitant malleolar fractures are treated surgically. Various options are available for syndesmotic fixation. The gold standard is syndesmotic screw placement from the lateral aspect of the fibula through the tibia. Fixation may be achieved with screws in a variety of configurations and formats. However, fixation with two 4.5-mm screws is stronger.11,12 Functional outcomes are similar, regardless of screw material,13-16 number of cortices,17 or number of screws.18 Disadvantages specific to screw fixation include altered ankle biomechanics,19,20 potential for screw breakage,21 and need for implant removal.3Alternatively, suture button fixation is said to be equally as effective as screw fixation in achieving syndesmotic reduction, and their functional outcomes are similar.22,23 The initial cost of suture button fixation is higher than that of screw fixation, but the difference may be offset by potential elimination of a second surgery for syndesmotic screw removal.24 Soft-tissue irritation caused by the suture material and local osteolysis are reported complications of suture button fixation.25-27

Regardless of fixation method used, achieving anatomical reduction of the syndesmosis is considered the most important factor in optimizing functional outcomes.28-31 However, achieving and verifying anatomical reduction of the syndesmosis during surgery can be quite challenging.30,32-34 Various methods of lowering the malreduction risk, including direct visualization of the tibiofibular joint during reduction30,35 and intraoperative 3-dimensional imaging,33,36 have been proposed.

In the study reported here, we used a US insurance database to determine the incidence and rate of syndesmotic stabilization within various ankle injuries and fracture patterns.

Materials and Methods

All data for this study were obtained from a publicly available for-fee healthcare database, the PearlDiver Patient Records Database, which includes procedural volumes and demographic information for patients with International Classification of Diseases, Ninth Revision (ICD-9) diagnoses and procedures or Current Procedural Terminology (CPT) codes. Data for the study were derived from 2 databases within PearlDiver: a private-payer database, which has its largest contribution (>30 million individual patient records for 2007-2011) from United HealthCare, and a Medicare database (>50 million patient records for 2007-2011). Access to the database was granted by PearlDiver Technologies for the purpose of academic research. The database was stored on a password-protected server maintained by PearlDiver.

We searched the database for cases of ankle fracture fixation, including fixation of isolated lateral malleolus (CPT 27792), bimalleolar (CPT 27814), and trimalleolar (CPTs 27822 and 27823) fractures. CPT 27829 was used to search for syndesmotic fixation, and CPT 20680 for implant removal. These codes were used individually and in combination.

Overall procedural volume data are reported as number of patients with the given CPT(s) in the database output and as incidence, calculated as number of patients with the CPT of interest normalized to total number of patients in the database for that particular subgroup. Results of age group and sex analyses are reported as number of patients reported in the database output and as percentage of patients who had the CPT procedure of interest that year. As United HealthCare is the largest contributor to the private-payer portion of the database and is represented most prominently in the southern region, data for the regional analysis are presented only as incidence. This incidence was calculated as number of patients in a particular region and year normalized to total number of patients in the database for that region or year. The regions were Midwest (IA, IL, IN, KS, MI, MN, MO, ND, NE, OH, SD, WI), Northeast (CT, MA, ME, NH, NJ, NY, PA, RI, VT), South (AL, AR, DC, DE, FL, GA, KY, LA, MD, MI, NC, OK, SC, TN, TX, VA, WV), and West (AK, AZ, CA, CO, HI, ID, MT, NM, NV, OR, UT, WA, WY).

Chi-square linear-by-linear association analysis was used to determine the statistical significance of time trends in procedural volume, sex, age group, and region. For all statistical comparisons, P < .05 was considered significant.

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