- Research article
- Open Access
Infected nonunion of tibia and femur treated by bone transport
© Yin et al.; licensee BioMed Central. 2015
Received: 11 October 2014
Accepted: 27 January 2015
Published: 10 April 2015
The objective of this study was to evaluate the effectiveness of the treatment of infected nonunion of tibia and femur by bone transport.
Material and methods
We retrospectively reviewed 110 patients with infected nonunion of tibia and femur treated by bone transport. Our study included 92 males and 18 females with a mean age of 38.90 years. The site of infected nonunion involved 72 tibias and 38 femurs. The mean length of the bone defects after radical debridement was 6.15 cm (range 3–13 cm).
The mean follow-up after removal of the apparatus was 23.12 months (14–46 months). Ten patients including seven patients with infected tibia nonunion and three patients with infected femur nonunion were lost to follow-up. All the patients achieved bone union, and no recurrence of infection was observed. The time of bone transport took a mean of 67.50 days (range 33 to 137 days), and the mean external fixation index was 1.48 months/cm (range 1.15–1.71 months/cm). According to Association for the Study and Application of the Method of Ilizarov (ASAMI) classification, bone results were excellent in 68, good in 28, fair in 12, and poor in 2; functional results were excellent in 37, good in 42, fair in 21, and no poor.
Our study and the current evidence suggested that Ilizarov methods in the treatment of infected nonunion of tibia and femur acquired satisfied results. Radical debridement is the key step to control bone infection.
Infected nonunion of tibia and femur are common in clinical practice. Some coexisting problems usually complicate the nonunion including persistent infection, bone and soft tissue loss, limb-length inequalities, deformity, and joint stiffness [1,2]. Heretofore, there has still been a challenge for orthopedic surgeons about the treatment of infected nonunion of tibia and femur [3-5]. Several different surgical treatment options have been proposed, including bone grafting , free tissue transfer , antibiotic cement , and Ilizarov methods . There are some limitations in bone grafting, such as the size of bone defects, donor site morbidity, and extended graft incorporation time . Although free tissue transfer is suitable for the treatment of large bone and soft tissue loss, it is a technically demanding surgery, and it is usually associated with stress fractures and nonunion . Antibiotic cement is used to control the infection efficiently, but it is only suitable for the treatment of infected nonunion with small defects or none, and bone grafting is usually necessary to achieve bone union . Ilizarov methods can overcome all these difficulties and address coexisting problems simultaneously. Progressive bone histogenesis following corticotomy and bone transport help in filling bone gaps eradicating infection and promoting fracture union . Therefore, bone transport has gradually been a main treatment for infected nonunion.
In the following report, we presented our experience in the treatment of infected nonunion of tibia and femur by bone transport using Ilizarov external fixator and monolateral external fixator, respectively. To our best knowledge, our study represented the largest retrospective series on the number of patients with infected nonunion of tibia and femur, and we also conducted a systematic review of infected nonunion of tibia and femur treated by Ilizarov methods.
Patients and methods
From January 2004 to January 2013, 120 patients with infected nonunion of tibia and femur were treated in our institution. Our eligible criteria were the following: (1) patients of age of 18 years or older; (2) patients with infected tibia nonunion treated by bone transport using Ilizarov external fixator or patients with infected femur nonunion treated by bone transport using monolateral external fixator; (3) patients without an associated permanent nerve injury of the ipsilateral lower extremity; (4) no amputation. A total of 110 patients were included in our study. The study was approved by the Ethics Committee of Chinese PLA General Hospital, and written informed consent was obtained from the patients for the publication of individual clinical details and accompanying images. The study was conducted according to the ethical principles stated in the Declaration of Helsinki.
Proportion of bacterial species growth in culture
Percent of culture
Our criteria for bone grafting were that the docking line was distinct (appearance of the radiolucency at the level of the faced osteotomy surfaces) through the radiographs at the third month after the end of bone transport. Our criteria for pin-track infection diagnosis were that the clinical appearance of the pin-track was red or producing discharge or soft-tissue pain and tenderness, or both, or all of them.
The patients were positioned supine on a radiolucent table. The operative incisions were performed in accordance with previous surgical incisions when possible. Then the infected scarred soft tissue and necrotic bone were debrided radically. Cortical bone bleeding, described as the so-called paprika sign, was accepted as an indication of vital tissue . Representative tissue cultures were obtained from infected tissue for the sake of finding out the infectious bacterium to choose sensitive antibiotics. If the patients had infected tibia nonunion, the Ilizarov external fixator was fixed to the tibia shaft as the way that Ilizarov rings were placed parallelly on the distal and proximal fragments and the fixed pins were inserted into the same plane under the image intensifier control; the rings in the distal or proximal fragments were fixed by three 2.5-mm pins, and the ring for bone transport in the middle was fixed by two 2.5-mm pins. The range of angle between two pins was 30°–90° in the axial plane, and we should make the angle bigger if possible. If the patients had infected femur nonunion, the monolateral external fixator was fixed to the femur shaft as the way that two or three 6-mm hydroxyapatite coated pins were inserted about 2–3 cm above and below the pre-selected osteotomy site under image intensifier control. The pins were fixed through a pre-drilled way. A 1–2-cm incision was made in order to expose the pre-selected osteotomy site, and then a subperiosteally transverse osteotomy was performed. The periosteum was sutured, and the incisions were closed with drainage tubes. If the infected site had large soft tissue defects, open dressing changing or vacuum sealing drainage (VSD) was made to close the wound.
All patients received a course of sensitive antibiotics for 2 to 4 weeks in intravenous way and were encouraged to perform isometric muscle and joint range-of-motion exercises on the second day after operation. The latency period before bone transport was 7–10 days, and the rate of distraction was 0.25 mm per 6 h. When bone transport was completed, the tibia or femur docked ends were compressed by 0.25 mm per day in order to provide full contact until the patient felt pain at the docking site.
Radiographs were reviewed every 2 weeks during the distraction period and monthly during the consolidation period. The Ilizarov or monolateral external fixator was removed when radiographs showed solid docking-site union and the regenerate area had a minimum of three complete cortices. Bone results and functional results were evaluated according to Association for the Study and Application of the Method of Ilizarov (ASAMI) classification [12-14].
Evaluation of the bone results
Infected tibia nonunion
Infected femur nonunion
Union, no infection, deformity <7°, limb length discrepancy (LLD) <2.5 cm
Union plus any two of the following: absence of infection, deformity <7°, LLD <2.5 cm.
Union plus any one of the following: absence of infection, deformity <7°, LLD <2.5 cm.
Nonunion/refracture/union plus infection plus deformity >7° plus LLD >2.5 cm
Evaluation of the functional results
Infected tibia nonunion
Infected femur nonunion
Active, no limp, minimum stiffness (loss of <15° knee extension/<15° ankle dorsiflexion), no reflex sympathetic dystrophy (RSD), insignificant pain.
Active, with one or two of the following: limb, stiffness, RSD, significant pain
Active, with three or all of the following: limb, stiffness, RSD, significant pain
Inactive (unemployment or inability to return to daily activities because of injury)
All the patients had a feeling of pain during the distraction period, but they could have tolerated the pain by oral analgesics. Pin-track infection occurred in 70 patients which involved 46 infected tibia nonunion and 24 infected femur nonunion. Sixty-six patients had only local inflammation, and they were treated by pin care and empirical broad spectrum antibiotics for oral administration; four patients had a purulent drainage, and aspiration of pus were cultured for selecting sensitive antibiotics, and finally they were treated by intravenous sensitive antibiotics. Thirty-two patients had the axial deviation during bone transport including 20 infected tibias nonunion and 12 infected femur nonunion, and external fixator adjustments for modification were performed in these patients. Bone grafting was required in 12 patients which involved 7 infected tibia nonunion and 5 infected femur nonunion at the docking site. Loosening of wires or pins occurred in 8 patients involving 4 infected tibia nonunion and 4 infected femur nonunion. The loose wires were re-tensioned, and the loose pins which are due to loss of adhesion with bone were removed and the new pins were inserted. Two patients with infected tibia nonunion suffered refracture at the docking site after removal of the external fixator, and then were re-applied with the Ilizarov external fixators, and finally achieved bone union. There were no neurovascular complications or a compartment syndrome.
This is a retrospective study of bone transport in the treatment of the largest number of patients with infected nonunion of tibia and femur at present. The present study showed that infected nonunion of tibia and femur treated by bone transport acquired satisfied results. The excellent and good rate of bone results was 87.27% (96/110), and the excellent and good rate of functional results was 79% (79/100). All the patients achieved bone union and no recurrence of infection was observed.
The treatment of infected nonunion of tibia and femur by Ilizarov methods
Bone union (%)
Bone results (excellent/good/fair/poor)
Functional results (excellent/good/fair/poor)
Complications (per patient)
RD, AT, BT (IEF)
RD, AT, BT (MEF)
RD, AT, BT (MEF), 5 F
RD, AT, BT (IEF/TSF)
RD, AT, BT (IEF)
RD, AT, CO, or ACL (IEF)
RD, AT, BT (IEF)
RD, AT, BT (IEF), BG RD, AT, BT (IEF and IMN), BG
RD, AT, ACL (IEF) RD, AT, BT (IEF)
RD, ACL (IEF)
RD, AT, BT, or ACL (IEF)
13/4/1/1(ASAMI) One amputation
3/9/3/4(ASAMI) One amputation
RD, AT, ACL, or BT (IEF)
RD, BT (IEF)
RD, AT, BT, or ACL or CO (IEF)
RD, BT, or CO (IEF)
RD, AT, BT (IEF), 3 F
RD, AT, BT (IEF)
8/8/2/4(ASAMI) One amputation
2/10/6/4(ASAMI) One amputation
RD, AT, BT (IEF)
RD, AT, BT, or CO (IEF)
RD, BT, or ACL or CO (IEF),3 F
RD, BT, or CO (IEF), 3AT
RD, BT (IEF)
7/11/4/5(ASAMI) One amputation
In our study, the complications per patient were 1.13% (124/110), which was less than the average data recorded in the aforementioned systematic review. We believed that making full preparations for the surgery based on specific conditions of every patient, meticulous post-operative care, and patients’ good compliance could decrease the complication rates. The most common complication was pin-track infection, and the incidence was 63.64% (70/110). Although we paid more attention to pin-track care, there was still a high incidence. Therefore, in addition to pin-track care, we recognized that pin-track infection was also related to patient’s bone quality, immunity, and so on. The rate of axial deviation during bone transport was 29.09% (32/110). The complication could be corrected by external fixator adjustments. We considered that the reason was overload of weight bearing or excessive functional exercise, and it may be avoided by reasonable rehabilitation exercises. There is a controversy on regular bone grafting at the docking site. We did not perform regular bone grafting, and bone grafting was required in only 12 patients (10.91%, 12/110) in our study. The rates of loosening of pins and refracture were 7.27% (8/110) and 1.82% (2/110), respectively, which were relatively lower. Good and excellent rate in bone results was 87.27%, and good and excellent rate in functional results was 79% in our study, these data was similar to the average data recorded in the aforementioned systematic review.
In our experience, the infected union of femur is more suitable for bone transport by monolateral external fixator due to the extensive soft-tissue envelope around the femur and the neurovascular structures. Monolateral external fixators for bone transport are simple in design and application and easy to carry out during a surgical procedure while maintaining it, and it can also alleviate pain caused by pin during the distraction period compared to the Ilizarov external fixator. The infected tibia is more suitable for bone transport by the Ilizarov external fixator, because Ilizarov external fixators for bone transport can provide a stable mechanical environment, correct deformities, and enable weight bearing during the course of treatment, and the patients can also tolerate the pain caused by tensioned wires of Ilizarov external fixators. In addition, some important aspects of bone transport should be paid attention. (1) We should perform radical debridement in the site of infected nonunion. This is the key step to control bone infection. (2) Distraction usually begins between 7 and 10 days after the operation at a rate of 0.25 mm per 6 h. If regenerate quality is poor, the speed of distraction will slow down.
In conclusion, our study and the current evidence suggested that Ilizarov methods in the treatment of infected nonunion of tibia and femur acquired satisfied effects in bone results and functional results. Radical debridement is the key step to control bone infection. However, our study lacks a direct comparison with any other treatment options, further randomized controlled trials are needed to draw more valuable conclusion.
Our authors would like to thank all patients included in the research, and all nurses and doctors in our department.
This study was supported by the National Natural Science Foundation of China (81000796; 30973068; 81401809).
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