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CJEM. 2003 Sep;5(5):309-13.

Prospective evaluation of clinical assessment in the diagnosis and treatment of clavicle fracture: Are radiographs really necessary?

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Department of Emergency Medicine, Mineral Springs Hospital, Banff, Alberta, Canada.



Current recommended treatment for middle-third clavicle fractures is limited to the use of ice, analgesics, a sling, and rest. Radiography for these fractures would be superfluous if physicians could accurately identify them by clinical examination alone. The primary purpose of this study was to determine whether emergency physicians can accurately diagnose clavicle fractures, and whether they can differentiate middle-third fractures from medial- or lateral-third fractures by clinical assessment alone.


We enrolled a convenience sample of patients who presented to our rural emergency department with possible clavicle fracture between Nov. 1, 2001, and Apr. 30, 2002. Prior to viewing radiographs, physicians scored their clinical certainty of diagnosis on a 10-cm visual analogue scale. When certain of fracture, physicians determined the location of the fracture, the nature of the fracture and their hypothetical comfort in treating the injury without radiography.


In 51 of 77 enrolled patients (66%; 95% confidence interval [CI], 54.6%-76.6%), treating physicians were certain of the diagnosis of clavicle fracture prior to radiography. In these 51 cases, radiography revealed a fracture in 50 cases (98.0%; 95%CI, 89.6%-99.9%). The physicians were 100% accurate for 4 fractures clinically identified as lateral-third fractures (95% CI, 39.7%-100%) and for 41 fractures identified as middle-third fractures (95% CI, 91.4%-100%). They were correct on only 1 of 5 injuries (20%; 95% CI: 1%-72%) they clinically identified as medial-third fractures. Despite high clinical accuracy with middle-third fractures, they stated in 27 of 42 cases (64%; 95%CI, 48.0%-78.5%) that they would have been uncomfortable treating the patient without a radiograph.


This study provides evidence that experienced emergency physicians are highly accurate when they are clinically certain of clavicle fracture. Further, when emergency physicians do clinically diagnose clavicle fracture, they can accurately identify the patient subgroup that will be responsive to conservative treatment. Routine radiography of obvious middle-third clavicle fractures does not appear to improve diagnostic accuracy or treatment decisions.


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