Thumb-in-palm surgery appears to lead to modest improvement in hand function and quality of life in people with cerebral palsy.

Cerebral palsy (CP) is a movement disorder caused by damage to the brain around birth. It causes muscle spasms and contractions that can lead to a condition called thumb-in- palm deformity, severely limiting hand function. Thumb-in-palm surgery is sometimes tried to improve ability to use the thumb. This review found no randomized controlled trials of thumb-in-palm surgery, but some other types of studies. Although some people with CP who had thumb-in-palm surgery experienced some improvement in movement, the improvement was generally modest. Trials are needed to show if thumb-in-palm surgery can improve function and quality of life for people with CP.

Authors' conclusions: 

Because the methodological quality of the studies is poor, it is impossible to provide a reliable judgement of the role of surgery for thumb-in-palm deformity. This review has demonstrated the need for randomized clinical trials or controlled clinical trials on the surgical treatment of thumb-in-palm deformity. Surgical reconstruction appears to improve hand function, to facilitate hygiene, and to improve the appearance and quality of life. For patient selection, a validated classification system should be developed to determine the type and extent of the cerebral palsied hand. The influence of age, intelligence, and voluntary muscle control still needs to be investigated. Investigators should focus on one particular surgical intervention or a specific group of interventions to find out which procedures produce the best functional improvement.

Read the full abstract...

Thumb-in-palm deformity in patients with spastic cerebral palsy is a deformity that impairs the ability to use the thumb and thus severely limits hand function. From the variety of operative procedures that have been described, it may be clear that there is no consensus on the surgical treatment of thumb-in-palm deformity.


To review the efficacy of surgical interventions for the thumb-in-palm deformity in patients with spastic cerebral palsy; to review the selection criteria to surgically treat thumb-in-palm deformity in these patients; and to review the outcome assessment used in these studies.

Search strategy: 

We identified studies for inclusion from searches of several electronic databases: the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (Issue 4, 2003), MEDLINE (1966 to December 2004), EMBASE (1980 to December 2004) and CINAHL (1982 to December 2004).
We also cross-checked the reference lists of these studies to identify additional studies.

Selection criteria: 

We considered a trial eligible for inclusion when it met the following criteria. 1) It was described as a randomized clinical trial, clinical controlled trial or prospective study that compared pre-operative- with post-operative outcome assessment. 2) It concerned patients with thumb-in-palm deformity affected by spastic cerebral palsy. There was no restriction in age. 3) It compared or described any surgical intervention to the thumb. 4) It followed subjects for at least six months. 5) Outcomes described included one or more of the following items: rate of success; functional improvement; active and passive range of motion of the thumb; grasp and release; pinch grip; complications and side effects; and quality of life.

Data collection and analysis: 

Two authors assessed each study using a scoring system. Meta-analysis was not possible because the selected studies were poorly designed, and the results were presented in an incompatible form. Therefore, we compiled a descriptive summary of the results of the individual studies. We did not attempt to acquire the raw data for re-analysis.

Main results: 

We identified 14 prospective studies that compared preoperative and postoperative outcomes as eligible for inclusion in this review. We found no randomized clinical trials or controlled clinical trials. The studies with the best available evidence were prospective studies that compared pre- with post-operative assessment. After assessment, we ultimately included nine studies.

In all the included studies the participants were more or less homogeneous regarding the most important prognostic indications. The nine included studies treated 234 patients. Age at operation ranged from 4-48 years (Median approximately 11 years).

Twenty-four different specific interventions were performed, or combined, aiming to 1) stabilize the first metacarpophalangeal joint, 2) weaken the spastic thumb adductors, and 3) augment thumb abduction and extension.

Outcome measures
All of the included studies assessed whether the thumb had stayed out of the palm at follow-up. Additional outcome measures varied among studies.

Selection criteria
There was no consensus on the selection criteria for eligibility for surgical treatment. There was also considerable variety in the use of methods of assessment among the studies. There is no standardized method to evaluate the pre- and post-operative data, and most of the assessment methods were not validated. It was impossible to compare the outcomes among studies. Judgement about the effectiveness of one particular surgical intervention was not possible, because different surgical interventions and co-interventions were used within most studies.

Nonetheless, generally, the outcome of surgical treatment of thumb-in-palm deformity was considered satisfactory to both patients and to surgeons in all studies.