Rehabilitation for ankle fractures in adults

Ankle fracture is one of the most common fractures of the lower limb, especially in older women and young men. It is generally treated surgically or non-surgically, followed by a period of immobilisation to prevent complications such as malunion. Because of the fracture and the subsequent immobilisation period, people often experience pain, stiffness, weakness and swelling at the ankle, and a reduced ability to participate in activities. This review looked at the evidence on the effects of different rehabilitation interventions for these fractures.

Rehabilitation for ankle fracture can begin soon after the fracture has been treated, either surgically or non-surgically, by the use of different types of immobilisation that allow early commencement of weight-bearing or exercise. Alternatively, rehabilitation, including the use of physical or manual therapies, may start following the period of immobilisation.

Thirty-eight studies with a total of 1,896 participants were included in the review. Many of the trials were potentially biased.

Three studies examined rehabilitation interventions that started during the immobilisation period after non-surgical treatment. There is some very limited evidence of short term benefit of one type of brace compared with immobilisation with a cast or orthosis. There was no evidence for hypnosis.

Thirty studies investigated rehabilitation interventions that started during the immobilisation period after surgical treatment. Ten of these compared the use of a removable type of immobilisation combined with exercise with cast immobilisation alone. There is some evidence from these that using a removable brace or splint so that gentle ankle exercises can be performed during the immobilisation period may enhance the return to normal activities, reduce pain and improve ankle movement. However, the incidence of adverse events (such as problems with the surgical wound) may also be increased. Starting walking early may also slightly improve ankle movement. One small and biased study showed that neurostimulation, an electrotherapy modality, may be beneficial in the short-term. There was little and inconclusive evidence on what type of support or immobilisation was the best.

Five studies investigated different rehabilitation interventions that started after the immobilisation period. There is no evidence of improved function for stretching or manual therapy when either of these are added to an exercise programme, or for an exercise programme when this is compared with usual care. One small and potentially biased study found reduced ankle swelling after non-thermal compared with thermal pulsed shortwave diathermy.

Authors' conclusions: 

There is limited evidence supporting early commencement of weight-bearing and the use of a removable type of immobilisation to allow exercise during the immobilisation period after surgical fixation. Because of the potential increased risk of adverse events, the patient's ability to comply with the use of a removable type of immobilisation to enable controlled exercise is essential. There is little evidence for rehabilitation interventions during the immobilisation period after conservative orthopaedic management and no evidence for stretching, manual therapy or exercise compared to usual care following the immobilisation period. Small, single studies showed that some electrotherapy modalities may be beneficial. More clinical trials that are well-designed and adequately-powered are required to strengthen current evidence.

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Background: 

Rehabilitation after ankle fracture can begin soon after the fracture has been treated, either surgically or non-surgically, by the use of different types of immobilisation that allow early commencement of weight-bearing or exercise. Alternatively, rehabilitation, including the use of physical or manual therapies, may start following the period of immobilisation. This is an update of a Cochrane review first published in 2008.

Objectives: 

To assess the effects of rehabilitation interventions following conservative or surgical treatment of ankle fractures in adults.

Search strategy: 

We searched the Specialised Registers of the Cochrane Bone, Joint and Muscle Trauma Group and the Cochrane Rehabilitation and Related Therapies Field, CENTRAL via The Cochrane Library (2011 Issue 7), MEDLINE via PubMed, EMBASE, CINAHL, PEDro, AMED, SPORTDiscus and clinical trials registers up to July 2011. In addition, we searched reference lists of included studies and relevant systematic reviews.

Selection criteria: 

Randomised and quasi-randomised controlled trials with adults undergoing any interventions for rehabilitation after ankle fracture were considered. The primary outcome was activity limitation. Secondary outcomes included quality of life, patient satisfaction, impairments and adverse events.

Data collection and analysis: 

Two review authors independently screened search results, assessed risk of bias and extracted data. Risk ratios and 95% confidence intervals (95% CIs) were calculated for dichotomous variables, and mean differences or standardised mean differences and 95% CIs were calculated for continuous variables. End of treatment and end of follow-up data were presented separately. For end of follow-up data, short term follow-up was defined as up to three months after randomisation, and long-term follow-up as greater than six months after randomisation. Meta-analysis was performed where appropriate.

Main results: 

Thirty-eight studies with a total of 1896 participants were included. Only one study was judged at low risk of bias. Eight studies were judged at high risk of selection bias because of lack of allocation concealment and over half the of the studies were at high risk of selective reporting bias.

Three small studies investigated rehabilitation interventions during the immobilisation period after conservative orthopaedic management. There was limited evidence from two studies (106 participants in total) of short-term benefit of using an air-stirrup versus an orthosis or a walking cast. One study (12 participants) found 12 weeks of hypnosis did not reduce activity or improve other outcomes.

Thirty studies investigated rehabilitation interventions during the immobilisation period after surgical fixation. In 10 studies, the use of a removable type of immobilisation combined with exercise was compared with cast immobilisation alone. Using a removable type of immobilisation to enable controlled exercise significantly reduced activity limitation in five of the eight studies reporting this outcome, reduced pain (number of participants with pain at the long term follow-up: 10/35 versus 25/34; risk ratio (RR) 0.39, 95% confidence interval (CI) 0.22 to 0.68; 2 studies) and improved ankle dorsiflexion range of motion. However, it also led to a higher rate of mainly minor adverse events (49/201 versus 20/197; RR 2.30, 95% CI 1.49 to 3.56; 7 studies).

During the immobilisation period after surgical fixation, commencing weight-bearing made a small improvement in ankle dorsiflexion range of motion (mean difference in the difference in range of motion compared with the non-fractured side at the long term follow-up 6.17%, 95% CI 0.14 to 12.20; 2 studies). Evidence from one small but potentially biased study (60 participants) showed that neurostimulation, an electrotherapy modality, may be beneficial in the short-term. There was little and inconclusive evidence on what type of support or immobilisation was the best. One study found no immobilisation improved ankle dorsiflexion and plantarflexion range of motion compared with cast immobilisation, but another showed using a backslab improved ankle dorsiflexion range of motion compared with using a bandage.

Five studies investigated different rehabilitation interventions following the immobilisation period after either conservative or surgical orthopaedic management. There was no evidence of effect for stretching or manual therapy in addition to exercise, or exercise compared with usual care. One small study (14 participants) at a high risk of bias found reduced ankle swelling after non-thermal compared with thermal pulsed shortwave diathermy.

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