Complications of articular distal humeral fracture fixation: a systematic review and meta-analysis

Thomas R. Yetter, Paul J. Weatherby, Jeremy S. Somerson

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

20 Scopus citations


Background: Distal humeral fractures are relatively rare injuries in adults. Fractures that involve the articular surface can be particularly challenging to treat. Open reduction–internal fixation (ORIF) remains the preferred treatment for most intra-articular distal humeral fractures, depending on the degree of comminution and functional demands of the patient. Many surgical approaches, fixation techniques, and potential complications have been described in the literature; however, the relative incidence and associated characteristics of these complications have not been studied. The purpose of this study was to identify the prevalence of complications and reoperations after ORIF for intra-articular distal humeral fractures. We sought to provide practical guidance to surgeons and offer insights on the avoidance and prognosis of complications through a systematic review of the published literature over the past 20 years. Methods: We performed a systematic review and meta-analysis of studies reporting complications and reoperation rates after ORIF for intra-articular distal humeral fractures. Subgroup analysis was conducted for complication rates between type 13B and 13C fractures, olecranon osteotomy and non-osteotomy approaches, and parallel and perpendicular plating. Results: Eighty-three studies met the inclusion criteria (2362 elbows; 5 level II, 2 level III, and 76 level IV studies). The mean clinical follow-up period was 2.6 years. The majority of fractures were type C (83%), the remainder were type B (17%). Of the fractures, 71% were closed whereas 9% were open; this was not reported for 20%. The mean postoperative flexion arc was 110°. The overall complication rate was 53%, and the overall reoperation rate was 21%. Although a parallel plating approach resulted in a lower rate of fixation failure requiring revision (1% vs. 6%, P < .001), a perpendicular plating approach showed a significantly lower rate of overall complications (45% vs. 54%, P = .006). This was primarily driven by lower rates of wound dehiscence (0.1% vs. 5%, P < .001), neuropathy (9% vs. 13%, P = .03), and implant prominence (3% vs. 7%, P = .01). Conclusions: This systematic review is the largest report of complications and reoperations of intra-articular distal humeral fractures after ORIF in the current literature. These results suggest that complications may be more frequent than previously understood. In contrast to prior small comparative studies, our study observed a significantly higher overall complication rate with parallel plating than with perpendicular plating. Perpendicular plating for intra-articular distal humeral fractures may be considered if adequate fixation and biomechanical stability can be achieved.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1957-1967
Number of pages11
JournalJournal of Shoulder and Elbow Surgery
Issue number8
StatePublished - Aug 2021
Externally publishedYes


  • Distal humerus fracture
  • Level IV
  • Systematic Review
  • complications parallel
  • intra-articular
  • open reduction and internal fixation
  • perpendicular
  • plating

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Surgery
  • Orthopedics and Sports Medicine


Dive into the research topics of 'Complications of articular distal humeral fracture fixation: a systematic review and meta-analysis'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this