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J Trauma Acute Care Surg. 2012 May;72(5):1399-403. doi: 10.1097/TA.0b013e3182471ec9.

Surgical management of posttraumatic elbow arthrofibrosis.

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Department of Orthopaedics and Sports Medicine, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington 98105, USA.



Functional loss of motion is a frequent complication after elbow trauma. The purpose of this study was to determine the effectiveness of open elbow release in restoring functional elbow motion.


A retrospective chart review of 177 adult patients who underwent open elbow release at our institution by the senior surgeon (D.P.H.) from 2003 to 2010 was performed. Seventy-seven of the elbow contracture releases were performed for posttraumatic elbow stiffness, with loss of flexion-extension. Burns and isolated proximal radioulnar exostosis resections were excluded. The mean age of patients was 45 years (range, 20-76 years), with 68 patients demonstrating radiographic evidence of heterotopic ossification (HO). The mean preoperative flexion-extension arc was 51 degrees. All patients were treated with the same surgical protocol, which included circumferential elbow capsulectomy, HO excision, hardware removal, and ulnar nerve neurolysis with submuscular anterior transposition.


At a mean follow-up of 12 months (range, 3-56 months), the mean elbow flexion-extension arc was 109 degrees representing a mean gain of 58 degrees. Sixty-nine percent (53 of 77 patients) achieved a minimum 100-degree functional elbow arc of motion. Six patients (8%) developed recurrent HO, with four undergoing secondary HO excision. One additional patient required manipulation under anesthesia in the early postoperative period. Complications included five infections, one postoperative fracture, one postoperative hematoma, and one radial head implant loosening.


Open elbow contracture release and HO excision is an effective means of restoring functional elbow range of motion with a low complication rate. Furthermore, recurrent HO formation and elbow arthrofibrosis respond well to repeat surgical excision and contracture release.


IV, therapeutic study.

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