A clavicle fracture is a common injury seen after a fall on an outstretched arm or direct impact. A large majority of all clavicle fractures will occur in the middle third of the shaft. Traditionally, treatment was based on the premise that malunion (or even non-union) of clavicle fractures was well tolerated and imposed little morbidity. Accordingly, these fractures were usually treated with only a course of immobilization. Recently, that assumption has been questioned, and many clavicular fractures are currently treated operatively – perhaps too many. Clavicular fractures that occur far laterally (known as distal clavicle fractures) must be considered distinctly, as they may involve the ligaments that suspend the glenohumeral joint. Also, because the clavicular physis is among last to close (around age 21 or later), an apparent separation of the acromioclavicular joint in a young adult may actually represent a physeal fracture of the clavicle.
Structure and Function
The clavicle (known colloquially as the collarbone), is a strut between the scapula (shoulder blade) and the sternum (breastbone).
Viewed from above, the clavicle is shaped like capital “S”, bone attaching medially to the sternum at the sternoclavicular joint, and laterally to the coracoid and the acromion. The inflexion point – the middle of the S – is the thinnest (and weakest) portion of the bone.
The pectoralis major, sternocleidomastoid and deltoid muscles originate from the clavicle and the trapezius inserts on it (Figure 1).
Figure 1: The left clavicle as seen from above. The sternum is medial and the acromion is lateral. The points of muscular attachment are color-coded: medially, the sternocleidomastoid is red and the pectoralis is green; laterally the deltoid is yellow and the trapezius is orange. (modified from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clavicle#/media/File:Gray200.png)
When the clavicle is fractured, the proximal (medial) portion can be pulled superiorly by the sternocleidomastoid muscles, while the distal portion is pulled inferiorly by the weight of the arm. The fracture fragments can also be displaced anteriorly or posteriorly, leading to tenting and necrosis of the overlying skin or neurovascular injury, respectively.
The coracoclavicular ligaments, namely, the trapezoid and coronoid, attach from the coracoid process to the inferior aspect of the clavicle and help suspend the arm. The acromioclavicular ligaments resist anterior/posterior displacement of the distal clavicle relative to the acromion. The clavicle overlies the brachial plexus, as well as the jugular and subclavian blood vessels.
Clavicle fractures most commonly occur following a direct blow or after a fall on an outstretched arm. Patients will often report feeling a snapping sensation at the time of injury. Patients may present with the relative arm held by their other hand across the body in adduction. Movement of the arm will exacerbate the pain.
In the case of mid-shaft fractures, there will be a deformity of the fractured clavicle, with swelling and ecchymosis. Skin tenting from anterior displacement may be present as well. The proximal portion of the fractures may be pulled superiorly, while the distal portion may be pulled inferiorly.
Distal clavicle fractures (Figure 2) may present with no deformity, and tenderness around the acromioclavicular (AC) joint, similar to an AC joint separation.
Figure 2: A distal (lateral) clavicle fracture (red arrow) may be in the region (green star) of the ligaments that attached the clavicle to the scapula. (from https://radiopaedia.org/cases/22256)
A neurovascular and respiratory exam is critical to rule out injury to the brachial plexus, subclavian vessels, or the lungs. Strength, sensation, pulses and difficulty of breathing should be assessed.
Bilateral anteroposterior chest radiographs should be obtained if a clavicle fracture is expected. This can differentiate clavicle fractures from AC joint separations and SC dislocations. The chest radiograph can also be used to assess for signs of vascular damage, such as a widened mediastinum and to rule out a pneumothorax.
A shoulder trauma series (AP, axillary, scapula Y) should also be obtained to rule out injuries to the glenohumeral joint and scapula. Most mid-shaft fractures can be visualized with this view.
Anteroposterior radiographs can best assess a clavicle fracture, especially in the proximal portion of the clavicle (Figure 3). A posteroanterior radiograph can be used to assess shortening of the clavicle for surgical planning. Computed tomography (CT) imaging can be utilized for evaluation of shortening (Figure 4), comminution, displacement and intra-articular involvement.
Figure 3: A mid-shaft clavicle fracture (Case courtesy of A. Prof Frank Gaillard, https://radiopaedia.org/ From the case https://radiopaedia.org/cases/18050,)
Figure 4: Shortening of the clavicle can be assessed by measuring the distance between the ends of the medial and lateral fragments or by direct comparison to the contralateral side. (from https://bmcmusculoskeletdisord.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12891-017-1881-x)
Arteriography may be helpful in evaluating vascular injury.
Clavicle fractures are classified by location. The regions of the clavicle are segmented into thirds: medial (aka proximal), middle and lateral (distal). Mid shaft clavicular fractures represent an overwhelming majority of these injuries (80%). Among the distal clavicular fractures (close to the AC joint) the fractures are further classified (following the scheme of Neer) in terms of the location of the clavicle fracture relative to the coracoclavicular ligaments. These fractures are designated as medial to the coracoclavicular ligaments; between the two coracoclavicular ligaments (with an intact trapezoid ligament attached to the distal lateral segment); and lateral to coracoclavicular ligaments and thus extending into the acromioclavicular joint itself.
Clavicle fractures are also classified by the degree of displacement: those which are nondisplaced or incompletely displaced vs those that are completely displaced and foreshortened by 2 cm or more.
Clavicle fractures account for 2-5% of fractures in adults and 10-15% of fractures in the pediatric population. Approximately 70% of clavicle fractures occur in males. There is a bimodal distribution of age, with the highest rates of fracture in active patients below the age of 25 years old and patients above the age of 55 years old. Falls, motor vehicle accidents, and sports related injuries are the most common causes of clavicle fractures in adults.
As with many traumatic injuries, the differential diagnosis narrows considerably after radiographs are obtained: the bone is either broken or it is not.
If there is no fracture, a clavicular contusion might be the diagnosis. This can present similar to a clavicle fracture with swelling, ecchymosis, tenderness and limited range of motion secondary to pain. Also, a ligament injury (especially in the form of an acromioclavicular joint separation) may be present. An acromioclavicular separation presents as pain over the acromioclavicular joint and distal shoulder. There may or may not be displacement of this joint. Sternoclavicular dislocation occurs after direct trauma to the chest wall and presents with deformity of the sternoclavicular joint and pain with arm movement. It is important to evaluate for glenoid neck fractures. If both the clavicle and glenoid neck are fractured the glenohumeral joint has no connection to the axial skeleton (floating shoulder). These injuries are associated with neurovascular injury. Rib fractures can also occur concomitantly with clavicular fractures given the traumatic mechanism of injury.
Posterior displacement of a segment puts neurovascular structures, as well as the lungs, at risk of injury.
Paresthesia, sensory deficits, strength deficits and/or abnormal reflexes in the relative arm may indicate an injury to the brachial plexus or one of its nerve branches.
Pulselessness, asymmetric pulses or coldness of limb may indicate an injury of the subclavian artery or vein.
Difficulty breathing and chest pain may indicate the presence of rib fractures, a hemothorax (vascular trauma), or a pneumothorax.
Treatment Options and Outcomes
Immobilization is indicated for fractures that are no more than minimally displaced -- the majority of clavicle fractures. With this injury, the patient is initially placed in a sling, with gentle range of motion exercises started at ~2 weeks post injury, when patients are able to move the arm without pain. Strengthening exercises can be started 6 to10 weeks after injury, when there is radiographic evidence of healing. Return to contact sports is typically allowed after 4 to 5 months, when there is radiographic evidence of fracture union.
Patients with clavicle fractures that are completely displaced and foreshortened by 2 cm or more are commonly indicated for surgery (Figure 5). If the ends of the fracture are not in contact and the clavicle and it is shortened by 2 cm or more, the risk of non-union is unacceptably high. This rationale is controversial, in the sense that delayed open treatment can be reserved for symptomatic non-unions and malunions. Also, not every patient with a displaced and foreshortened fracture will be sufficiently symptomatic to warrant further treatment.
Figure 5: A clavicle fracture fixed with a plate. (from https://bmcmusculoskeletdisord.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1471-2474-15-380)
Any displacement of distal third fractures may be an indication for surgical treatment as the displacement implies a concomitant ligament injury and higher risk of non-union.
Urgent open treatment is indicated for open fracture (or skin tenting), with subclavian artery or vein injury, or when there is a scapular fracture as well (the so-called floating shoulder).
Polytrauma may also be an indication for open treatment for a fracture that, in isolation, would be indicated for closed treatment.
Open reduction and internal fixation can utilize intramedullary rods, or plates and screws. After internal fixation, patients are immobilized in a sling for 2 weeks; during this time passive range of motion exercises are performed. Rehabilitation is similar to non-op management.
While patient satisfaction and shoulder function is typically high following non-operative immobilization, there is a risk of malunion and nonunion. Nonunion rates following non-operative immobilization range from 0.1 to 21 percent depending on the presence of displacement.
Non-operative treatment is also associated with higher rates of cosmetic dissatisfaction compared to operative treatment.
Open reduction and internal fixation is associated with shorter time to union and better functional recovery. Compared to closed reduction and immobilization, surgical fixation results in significantly better outcomes 6 weeks after injury, but this difference dissipates after about 6 months. Unfortunately, there is a high complication rate, as high as 34%, and a significant reoperation rate, ranging from 18-25%.
Risk Factors and Prevention
Athletic involvement increases the risk for clavicle fracture. The use of protective equipment when participating in contact sports may decrease the risk of clavicle fracture.
For about 2,390 out of the last 2400 years, non-operative treatment of clavicular fractures was the norm. In 400 BC, Hippocrates wrote this about clavicle fractures:
“Patients [MF1] attach much importance to it, as supposing the mischief greater than it really is, and the physicians bestow great pains in order that it may be properly bandaged; but in a little time the patients, having no pain, nor finding any impediment to their walking or eating, become negligent; and the physicians finding they cannot make the parts look well, take themselves off, and are not sorry at the neglect of the patient, and in the meantime the callus is quickly formed.”
Likewise, in 1994, Mullaji and Jupiter (Injury. 25(1):41-5, 1994 Jan) said this: “Internal fixation of the clavicle is rarely necessary.”
It was not until 2007 that the Canadian Orthopedic Trauma Society wrote
“Operative fixation of a displaced fracture of the clavicular shaft results in improved functional outcome and a lower rate of malunion and nonunion compared with nonoperative treatment.” (Journal of Bone & Joint Surgery - American Volume. 89(1):1-10, 2007)
Clavicle fractures are the most common fractures in newborns and occur 0.4-3% of the time. Fourteen to forty percent are diagnosed after the baby is discharged. Brachial plexus injuries can also occur during these fractures, but almost always resolve.
Clavicle, collar bone, fracture, open reduction, immobilization
Perform an upper extremity musculoskeletal exam with concern for neurovascular injury. Interpret radiographs of the chest and shoulder for clavicle fractures, as well as other concerning signs such as rib fractures or widened mediastinum. Apply a sling or figure-of-eight brace to a patient.
[MF1]Quotes indented per in-text citation rules.