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Tibia/Fibula Fracture Open Reduction and Internal Fixation

What is tibia/fibula fracture open reduction and internal fixation?

Open reduction and internal fixation (ORIF) is a type of surgery used to stabilize and heal a broken bone. You might need this procedure to treat your broken shinbone (tibia) or your fibula.

The tibia, or shinbone, is the larger bone in your lower leg. Beside it is the fibula. This is located more toward the outside of the leg. The tibia forms part of the knee joint. The ends of the tibia and the fibula both form part of the ankle joint.

Different kinds of injury can damage the tibia or the fibula. This causes them to break into one or more pieces. This might happen in the part of the bone near the knee, near the middle long part of the bone, or in the bone near part of the ankle. (A fracture here might be called a broken ankle.) Only one of these bones might break. Or you might have a fracture in both bones. In certain types of fractures, your bone breaks, but its pieces still line up correctly. In other types of fractures, the injury moves the bone fragments out of position.

You might need ORIF to bring your bones back into place and help them heal if you fracture your tibia or fibula. During an open reduction, orthopedic surgeons reposition your bone pieces during surgery to put them back into position. A healthcare provider moves the bones back into place without surgically exposing the bone in a closed reduction.

Internal fixation refers to the method of reconnecting the bones. This might be done with special screws, plates, nails (a metal rod inserted in the bone), or wires that the surgeon places inside the bones. This is to fix them in the correct place. This prevents the bones from healing abnormally. The surgery usually takes place while you are asleep under general anesthesia.

Why might I need a tibia/fibula fracture open reduction and internal fixation?

Certain medical conditions may make tibia or fibula fractures more likely. For example, osteoporosis increases the risk of fracture. Motor vehicle or cycling accidents, contact sports, falls, and repetitive impact activities are common sources of injury that can lead to a tibia or fibula fracture.

You might not need ORIF if you fracture your tibia or your fibula. Many people don’t. If possible, your healthcare provider will treat your fracture with other treatments, like pain medicines, splints, casts, or braces.

You probably won’t need ORIF unless there is some reason your fracture might not heal normally with these other treatments. You are more likely to need ORIF if:

  • The pieces of your leg are severely out of position
  • Your broken tibia or fibula pierced through the skin
  • Your tibia or fibula broke into several pieces
  • Your fracture is in the knee or ankle joint
  • Your bones haven’t healed normally after other treatments

In these cases, ORIF can place your bones back into their correct position. This increases the chance that your bone will heal normally. You might need ORIF for a fracture that happens anywhere along your tibia or fibula. This includes portions that form part of your knee or ankle joint.

What are the risks of tibia/fibula fracture open reduction and internal fixation?

Most people who have ORIF for their tibia or fibula fracture do very well. Complications, although rare, can sometimes happen. Possible complications include:

  • Infection
  • Bleeding
  • Nerve damage
  • Blood clots
  • Fat embolism
  • Bone not in the right position, or failure to heal
  • Irritation of the overlying tissue from the hardware
  • Stiffness or arthritis

There is also the risk that the fracture won’t heal normally, and you’ll need repeat surgery.

Your own risk of complications may vary according to your age, the anatomy of your fracture, and your other medical conditions. For example, people with low bone mass or diabetes may be at greater risk of some complications. Smokers may also have an increased risk. Ask your healthcare provider about the risks that most apply to you.

How do I get ready for a tibia/fibula fracture open reduction and internal fixation?

ORIF often takes place as an urgent procedure. An orthopedic surgeon will ask about your health history and give you a physical exam before your procedure. You’ll need imaging of your tibia and fibula, an X-ray and possibly a CT scan. Tell your surgeon about all the prescription medicines you take, over-the-counter medicines, vitamins, and supplements. Also, let your surgeon know the last time you ate.

In some cases, your surgeon might do your ORIF a little later. You might have your leg held immobile while you wait for your surgery. Talk to your surgeon about how to prepare for the surgery. Ask whether you should stop taking any medicines ahead of time, like blood thinners. You’ll need to not eat or drink after midnight the night before your procedure.

What happens during a tibia/fibula fracture open reduction and internal fixation?

Your surgeon can help explain the details of your surgery. These details will depend on the location and severity of your injury. An orthopedic surgeon will do the surgery aided by a team of healthcare providers. The surgery may take a few hours. In general, you can expect the following:

  • You will receive general anesthesia. This will make you sleep through the surgery so that you won’t feel any pain.
  • A healthcare provider will carefully watch your vital signs, like your heart rate and blood pressure.
  • After cleaning the affected area, your surgeon will make an incision through the skin and muscle of your leg.
  • Your surgeon will bring the pieces of your tibia or fibula back into the right position (reduction).
  • Next, your surgeon will secure the pieces of your tibia or fibula to each other (fixation). To do this, they will use tools like screws, metal plates, nails, wires, or pins. For a fracture in the middle part of the tibia, surgeons often use a specially designed long metal nail that passes through the middle of the bone.
  • Your surgeon will make other repairs, if necessary.
  • After they have secured the bone, your surgeon will close the layers of skin and muscle around your leg.

What happens after a tibia/fibula fracture open reduction and internal fixation?

Talk to your surgeon about what you can expect after your surgery. You may have a lot of pain after your procedure, but pain medicines can help to relieve the pain. You should be able to resume your normal diet quickly. You will probably have some sort of imaging procedure, like an X-ray, done to verify your surgery was successful. Depending on the extent of your injury and your other medical conditions, you might be able to go home the same day.

For a while after your surgery, you may need to keep your leg immobile. This usually means wearing a brace, perhaps for several weeks. You may need to protect your leg from water. You’ll receive instructions about how you can move your leg and whether you can put weight on it.

Follow all your surgeon's instructions carefully. You might need to take medicine to prevent blood clots (a blood thinner) for a little while after your surgery. Your surgeon might not want you to take certain over-the-counter medicines for pain, because some of these can interfere with bone healing. Your healthcare provider may advise you to eat a diet high in calcium and vitamin D as your bone heals.

You may have a small amount of fluid draining from your incision site. This is normal. Let your healthcare provider know right away if there is an increase in redness, swelling, or increased draining of fluid from your incision site. You should also inform your surgeon right away if you have a high fever, chills, severe pain that does not improve, or any loss of feeling in your leg or foot.

Make sure to keep all of your follow-up appointments. You may need to have your stitches or staples removed a week or so after your surgery.

At some point, you may need physical therapy to restore strength and flexibility to your muscles. Doing your exercises as prescribed can improve your chances of full recovery. These fractures often take several months to heal completely, but you should be able to resume many of your activities before this time.

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