Extensor tendon injuries of the fingers, hand, and wrist are frequently seen in the emergency department. One recent study found 33.2 tendon injuries to the hand/wrist per 100,000 person-years.1 These injuries occur more often in males than females and have their highest incidence between 20 and 29 years of age.1,2
Extensor tendons are superficial and as such are easy to injure. Over the dorsum of the hand, the extensor tendons form a network of fibers connected by the juncturae tendinum [Figure 2]. These can mask an extensor tendon injury because an uninjured adjacent tendon may compensate for extensor movement.
Which structures are injured depends on the zone of injury. Injuries can occur to the common extensor tendon, the lateral bands, the central slip, and/or the terminal extensor tendon. The zones of injury are broken down anatomically into zones I through VIII, allowing a universal language for the description of hand/wrist injuries [Figure 3].
There are specific anatomical considerations for extensor tendons overlying the fingers, especially over the proximal interphalangeal joint, where the central slip may be injured. Injuries of the central slip will be covered in our next post.
Test each extensor joint through active range of motion against resistance. If there is any uncertainty, compare it to the other hand. The key to diagnosing an extensor tendon injury is to maintain a high index of suspicion. Do not forget to test the distal joint to identify a subtle mallet finger injury.
1. Exam: Proper exposure
In the case of open extensor tendon injuries, achieve proper exposure to assess the tendon. This requires good lighting, analgesia, positioning, and hemostasis. Adequate analgesia can be achieved using a nerve block with lidocaine or bupivicaine.3 Next, depending on the location of the injury, use a Penrose drain or a sphygmomanometer to achieve a bloodless field [Figures 4-5].
Once hemostasis is achieved, the joint underlying the injured area should be visualized through its full range of motion to identify any partial tendon injuries.
The above video from LacerationRepair.com summarizes the key points of the exam (additional pearls/pitfalls regarding the exam from the site).
One key pitfall is not having enough exposure since the actual laceration can be very small or proximal/distal to the skin laceration, such as when injury occurs while the hand is in a fist. Lacerations can be extended to properly visualize the injury [Figure 6].
A video demonstrating wound extension technique can be seen below from LacerationRepair.com, along with a description of additional tests used in the diagnosis of extensor tendon injury in specific hand zones from the site.
Extensor tendon injuries fall into 2 general categories: open versus closed. Both rely on a high index of suspicion and careful physical examination. Closed injuries only require splinting in a volar extension splint [Figure 7] with a hand surgery follow-up within 1 week.2
Some open injuries can be repaired in the ED, and some will need delayed repair by a hand surgeon. Ultimately, all these injuries (repaired or not) need hand surgeon follow up in one week.
Which injuries can be repaired in the ED?
- Zone I: Mallet finger, treated with continuous extension splinting of the DIP joint and referral to a hand surgeon for follow-up.4
- Zone II-IV: May repair in the ED 2,3
- Zone V: Suspect a human bite from a clenched fist hitting a person’s teeth (“fight bite”).5 Refer for delayed repair by a hand surgeon unless the injury was caused by a sharp, clean object.6
- Zone VI: May repair in the ED, often easy technically because the juncturae minimize tendon retraction.2
- Zone VII and VIII: The extensor retinaculum is in this area. Excessive trauma increases risk of adhesion formation.2 Refer to a hand surgeon for repair.
Contraindications to ED repair
- “No-go” hand zones (VII, VIII)
- Thumb involvement
- Open fracture
- Neurovascular compromise
- Gross contamination
- Immunocompromised patients or those who are considered elite athletes 4
Complete versus partial tendon disruption
Complete tendon lacerations need to be repaired. Partial tendon lacerations are more controversial; however, it is generally recommended to repair (either in the ED or OR) if the laceration involves >50% of the tendon diameter. Lacerations involving <50% usually need 6 weeks of splinting in extension with hand surgeon and hand therapist follow-up.
Choice of suture
The best choice is a braided non-absorbable suture, such as Ethibond.2 Prolene can be used but is considered suboptimal because it stretches over time. Nylon sutures are sharp and can tear through the tendon.
For size, our local plastic surgeon group recommends the largest suture that the tendon can tolerate to maximize retention strength. 3-0 is a common size choice for extensor tendon repair of the hand where the tendons are thicker and can accommodate core sutures.7 For extensor tendon repair in the fingers, a 4-0 is often selected,2,7 although a 3-0 or even a 2-0 could be used if the tendon is large enough.
A tapered needle is preferred as it is less traumatic when compared to a cutting needle.2
There are many techniques of suture repair and you will find differing recommendations depending on your source. The figure-of-8 is an acceptable technical choice3 because:
- It is familiar to emergency physicians.
- The number of suture strands across the repair site correlates with tensile strength.8
Be gentle when manipulating the tendon to minimize additional trauma. Use only single toothed forceps on the exposed cut end of the tendon with as little force as possible.
In certain situations, a more advanced practitioner might also consider use of a grasping suture technique, demonstrated in the following video (more information on their indications).
Even when extensor tendon injuries are repaired in the ED, hand surgeon follow-up in 7 days is required for reassessment, skin suture removal, and referral to hand physiotherapy for strengthening and range of motion. There is a dearth of evidence for prophylactic antibiotics, but they are often prescribed.2,4 If you are unable to adequately assess a suspected extensor tendon injury, close the skin, place the arm in a volar extension splint, and refer to a hand surgeon for follow-up within 7 days.
You identify a 50% injury of the extensor tendon in zone VI of the left hand and repair the injury using 3-0 Ethibond. Subsequently, you place the arm in a volar extension splint, and send your patient for follow up with a hand surgeon. His extensor tendon injury recovers beautifully.
Take Home Points for Extensor Tendon Injuries of the Hand
- Some extensor tendons of the hands and fingers can be repaired in the ED.
- Adequate exposure, a bloodless field, and possible wound extension are needed to properly assess wounds for an extensor tendon injury.
- Use 3-0 and 4-0 nonabsorbable braided sutures for extensor tendons of the hand and fingers, respectively.
- Use a figure-of-8 technique for suturing extensor tendon lacerations in the ED.
- Apply a volar extension splint and refer for hand surgeon follow-up within 7 days, regardless of ED repair.