Before we begin our discussion on calcaneal fractures, it is important to highlight the major anatomical structures visible on a standard X-ray of the ankle and foot.
As would be expected, the size and position of the calcaneus predispose the bone to various forms of injury. A calcaneal fracture is most often sustained after a road traffic accident or a fall from significant height onto the feet as was the case with our patient. Due to the mechanism of injury, it is often colloquially dubbed as “Lover’s fracture” or the “Don Juan fracture”(1).
Among fractures of the hindfoot, calcaneal fractures comprise 50-60% of all tarsal bone fractures (2). These fractures are usually intra-articular (3) and occur more commonly in young men aged between 20 and 40 years. Diseases which decrease bone density, such as osteoporosis, invariably increase the risk for development of the fracture when injury occurs.
Patients with calcaneal fractures will often present in severe pain, though they may not always be able to localize the exact source for their pain. Swelling at the ankle or heel along with bruising (ecchymosis) can also be expected. Due to the mechanism of fall, injury usually occurs bilaterally. Most patients are unable to bear any weight onto the affected limb.
The lower extremity or extremities in question should undergo a thorough neurovascular exam, as diminished pulses distal to the injury (dorsalis pedis) could indicate arterial compromise and mandate aggressive investigation with angiography or Doppler scanning. Though the gold standard for diagnosing calcaneal fractures remains a CT scan, a plain film X-ray is usually obtained first which should include an Antero-Posterior (AP), a lateral, and an oblique view.
Bohler’s Angle and Critical Angle of Gissane
Historically, physicians would measure Bohler’s angle and the critical angle of Gissane in cases where a calcaneal fracture was not clearly evident on a plain X-ray. Outlined in Figure 3, a calcaneal fracture would be suspected if Bohler’s angle was below 20 degrees or the critical angle of Gissane was noted to be more than 140 degrees. Bohler’s angle was found to be a lot more diagnostically reliable when compared to the critical angle of Gissane (4). However, both these methods of diagnosis are now considered obsolete and the same research that studied that utility of the angles found that Emergency Physicians were able to accurately identify calcaneal fractures approximately 98% of the time without the measurement of either angle.
The goal of initial management in the Emergency Department is centered on adequate pain relief, immobilization and wound care (including antibiotics when there are signs of a contaminated wound). [See the link for open fractures and antibiotic choices.]
An important point to note is that the mechanism of injury in calcaneal fractures (namely fall from height) is a form of axial loading. The energy from landing on the ground will often be transmitted up through the body, usually to the spine causing compression fractures of the vertebrae. The patient, however, may not complain about pain in other areas due to the overwhelming and distracting pain in the calcaneus. Therefore, all calcaneal fractures should be managed with a high index of suspicion for associated injuries.
Other potential complications include compartment syndrome, wound infection, malunion and osteomyelitis. All patients diagnosed to have calcaneal fractures should be managed by a multidisciplinary team that includes an Orthopedic Surgeon to ensure definitive management and repair of the fracture.
Take Home Points
References and Further Reading
- Lee P, Hunter TB, Taljanovic M. Musculoskeletal colloquialisms: how did we come up with these names? Radiographics. 2004;24 (4): 1009-27. doi:10.1148/rg.244045015
- Davis D, Newton EJ. Calcaneus Fractures. [Updated 2019 Mar 13]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2019 Jan
- Jiménez-Almonte JH, King JD, Luo TD, Aneja A, Moghadamian E. Classifications in Brief: Sanders Classification of Intraarticular Fractures of the Calcaneus. Clin. Orthop. Relat. Res. 2019 Feb;477(2):467-471
- Jason R. K., Eric A. G., Gail H. B., Curt B. H. & Frank L. Boehler’s angle and the critical angle of gissane are of limited use in diagnosing calcaneus fractures in the ED. American Journal of Emergency Medicine. 24, 423–427 (2006)