Salter-Harris Fractures

salter harris

Case Presentation

You are a medical student doing your first clinical shift as part of your Emergency Medicine rotation. A 9-year-old boy is brought in by his father after an injury to his left hand approximately 1 hour back. As explained by the father, the child was playing at home with his elder brother when his left index finger became caught in between a door that had quickly slammed shut. Following the injury, the child was reported to be crying due to severe pain, but had no lacerations or other associated injuries. He was rushed to the hospital and presented in the ED as an anxious, weeping boy who held out his left index finger and pointed to the tip as the region of maximal pain. Mild swelling was noted at the distal interphalangeal joint as well as at the tip of the affected finger. After appropriate analgesia was initiated, the child was sent to the Radiology department for X-ray imaging. The images obtained by the department are shown below in Figures 1.1 and 1.2.

Figure 1.1
Figure 1.1
Figure 1.2
Figure 1.2

Findings

Due to the lack of ideal positioning and suboptimal cooperation from the child and his parent, the radiology technician reports back to you stating that the best images they could obtain were the ones displayed above. Although unclear, you can confidently identify a small break in the bone at the base of the distal phalanx. You mention to the father that you see a fracture on the X-ray and report back to your Attending Physician. 

The Attending Physician decides to take a break from his morning coffee and utters the dreaded question: “What kind of fracture is this?” You try to recall a lecture you had about Salter-Harris fractures but cannot recall the classification of these fractures. As if on cue, the father of the patient finds you shuffling your weight in front of the Attending Physician and asks: “You said he has a fracture, will he have to get surgery for his finger?”

“What kind of fracture is this?”

Salter-Harris Fractures

Salter-Harris Fractures refer to fractures that involve the growth plate (physis). Therefore, these fractures are applicable specifically to the pediatric population, occurring most often during periods of rapid growth (growth spurts) when the growth plate is at its weakest, close to age ranges where children tend to participate in high-risk activities (11-12 in girls and 12-14 in boys) [1].

Originally described in 1963 by Dr Robert Salter and Dr Robert Harris [2], the now infamous Salter-Harris fractures are classified by the region of bone that is affected. Figure 2 displays the gross anatomy of a normal distal phalanx similar to the picture we examined in the X-ray, labelled to reflect the different areas of the bone relative to each other. The types of fractures that can occur are outlined below.

SALTER HARRIS ANATOMY
Figure 2
  • Type I Salter-Harris Fractures (Slipped)

    Type I fractures occur when a longitudinal force is applied across the physis, resulting in a displacement (“slip”) of the epiphysis from the metaphysis. Though relatively infrequent (5%), suspicion of this fracture is raised when the epiphysis is seen to either be displaced to the side of its original position relative to the metaphysis or when the gap between the two segments is widened.

Salter-Harris Type I
Salter-Harris Type I
  • Type II Salter-Harris Fractures (Above)

    Type II fractures are the most common (75%) of the Salter-Harris fractures. As with our patient above, this fracture only involves structures “Above” the epiphysis (Metaphysis + Physis/growth plate) with virtually no fracture or displacement of the epiphysis itself. Fortunately, type I and most type II fractures can be managed conservatively with cast immobilization and splinting.

Salter-Harris Type II
Salter-Harris Type II
  • Type III Salter-Harris Fractures (Lower)

    Type III fractures involve both the physis and the epiphysis. Although relatively uncommon (10%), the involvement of the epiphysis and consequent disruption of the growth plate makes this an intra-articular fracture that usually requires surgical fixation.

Salter-Harris Type III
Salter-Harris Type III
  • Type IV Salter-Harris Fractures (Through)

    Continuing the trend of worse outcomes with higher classification types, Type IV fractures involve all three layers (metaphysis, physis and epiphysis) and thus harbor more adverse outcomes and risks, with management primarily consisting of operative internal fixation. Similar to Type III fractures, this is an intra-articular fracture and also occurs at a similar rate of 10%.

Salter-Harris Type IV
Salter-Harris Type IV
  • Type V Salter-Harris Fractures (Rammed/Crushed)

    The rarest of all the Salter-Harris fractures, type V fractures occur due to high impact compression of the growth plate. Potential disruption of the germinal matrix and compromised vascular supply to the growth plate can lead to growth arrest.

Salter-Harris Type V
Salter-Harris Type V

A convenient method to recall the Salter-Harris classifications is outlined below using the mnemonic “SALTR”

Salter-Harris Classification
Salter-Harris Classification

Case Resolution

You ascertain the patient’s fracture to be a type II Salter-Harris fracture, justifying your answer to the Attending Physician by pointing out that the affected region in the X-ray is limited to the metaphysis and physis with no epiphyseal involvement. Recognizing the potential for parental misconceptions surrounding the diagnosis of fractures in pediatric patients [3], you approach the father and explain that, though there is a fracture present, there is likely no need for any surgical intervention. You advise that the left index finger will be immobilized using a splint and further elaborate on the unlikelihood of this injury to manifest any long-term developmental or growth arrest in the affected region.

References and Further Reading

  1. Levine RH, Foris LA, Nezwek TA, et al. Salter Harris Fractures. [Updated 2019 Aug 13]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2019 Jan
  2. Salter, Robert B.; Harris, W. Robert: Injuries Involving the Epiphyseal Plate, The Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery (JBJS): April 1963 – Volume 45 – Issue 3 – p 587-622
  3. Sofu H, Gursu S, Kockara N, Issin A, Oner A, Camurcu Y. Pediatric fractures through the eyes of parents: an observational study. Medicine (Baltimore). 2015;94(2):e407. doi:10.1097/MD.0000000000000407
Cite this article as: M. Anzal Rehman, "Salter-Harris Fractures," in International Emergency Medicine Education Project, December 23, 2019, https://iem-student.org/2019/12/23/salter-harris-fractures/, date accessed: February 27, 2020

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