x Proximal Humeral Fractures JB .docx



Proximal Humeral Fractures



The proximal humerus comprises four so-called “parts”: the greater tuberosity, the lesser tuberosity, the humeral head and the humeral shaft. Fractures in this area are common, especially among older patients. Among elderly patients with osteoporotic bone, low-energy falls are the most common mechanism of injury; younger individuals sustain fractures of the proximal humerus from high-energy trauma, and may have concomitant injuries. Most proximal humerus fractures are not displaced and can be treated non-operatively. On the other hand, because displacement can upset the mechanics of the glenohumeral joint (with or without concomitant tearing of the rotator cuff) or disrupt the blood supply to the head more aggressive treatment may be needed in that setting.


Structure and Function

As shown in the figure1 and 2, there are four bony “parts” of the proximal humerus. These represent the coalescence of distinct ossification centers and thus are prone to separation during injury.

Figure 1: The four osseous segments are humeral head and articular surface (1), greater tuberosity (2), lesser tuberosity (3) and humeral shaft (4).  The so-called anatomic neck is shown in green; this represents the fused epiphyseal plate below the articular surface. The so-called surgical neck is shown in blue. This is the junction between the shaft and the tuberosities. The bicipital groove lies between the greater and lesser tuberosities.


Figure 2: An x-ray highlighting the articular surface (blue), greater tuberosity (red), lesser tuberosity (yellow) and humeral shaft (green)


There are multiple muscular insertions on the proximal humerus. These attachments typically work in tandem to produce balanced forces that stabilize the glenohumeral joint. With a fracture, though, they can be deforming.


Important insertions include:

The supraspinatus, infraspinatus, and teres minor insertion on the greater tuberosity. These assist with abduction and external rotation and with fracture can cause superior and posterior displacement of the greater tuberosity.

The subscapularis inserts on the lesser tuberosity and exerts an internal rotation force. With fracture, the subscapularis displaces the lesser tuberosity medially.

Pectoralis major inserts on the lateral margin of the bicipital groove, distal and lateral to the lesser tuberosity and can displace the shaft medially and anteriorly  


The deltoid inserts on the shaft distal to the greater tuberosity and can abduct the humeral shaft.

The major blood supply to the humeral is from anterior and posterior humeral circumflex arteries.  Fractures of the anatomical neck can lead to osteonecrosis if the vascular supply of the humeral head is disrupted by injury across the anatomical neck.


The axillary nerve courses anteroinferior to the glenohumeral joint, traversing the quadrangular space. It is at particular risk for traction injury owing to its relative rigid fixation at the posterior cord and deltoid as well as its proximity to the inferior capsule where it is susceptible to injury during anterior dislocation and anterior fracture-dislocation.


Patient Presentation

Patients present with a known history of trauma.


The mechanism of injury typically varies based on age. For elderly patients, the history usually involves a fall on an outstretched hand from a standing height. Younger patients often present following a high-energy trauma with a direct blow to the shoulder. Less commonly, proximal humerus fractures may occur as the result of a violent muscle contraction (i.e. during a seizure or following an electrical shock).


Initial complaints include pain and immobility of the affected upper extremity. Patients may report paresthesias or diminished sensation distal to the injury.


Complaints of weakness may be secondary to pain inhibition or nerve injury.


Patients will often present with the affected upper extremity held closely to the chest by the contralateral hand (to minimize painful of motion).


Swelling of the affected limb appears within hours after injury. Bruising along the arm and chest wall (ecchymoses) might not appear until a few days after injury.


Comminution and displacement of the fracture fragments may be appreciated on inspection and palpation, but gross deformity is rare, owing to the large muscles mass near the shoulder.


Important elements of the history including the mechanism of injury. In the case of a fall, for instance, a syncopal event or history suggestive of a seizure would warrant further workup.


A careful neurovascular exam should be conducted with particular attention to axillary nerve. This may be assessed by presence of sensation on the lateral aspect of the proximal arm overlying the deltoid. Motor testing (i.e. assessing deltoid and teres minor function) is often not possible at initial presentation due to pain.


Objective Evidence

Three view radiographs, the true A-P, lateral (so-called “Y view”) and axillary, should be obtained.

The A-P and lateral views are best for evaluation of the humerus. The axillary view is best for evaluation of the glenoid articular fractures and to exclude dislocation/subluxation of the glenohumeral articulation.


If axillary view cannot be obtained due to pain, Velpeau axillary view can be obtained which is done with the patient in a sling, leaning obliquely backward 45 degrees over the cassette. The beam is then directed caudally, orthogonal to the cassette.


Radiographs are used to classify the fracture in terms of the displacement of the parts affected. According to the system popularized by Neer (based on the original work by Codman), a broken part is designated if it displaced by 1 cm or more, or if there is 45 degrees or more of angulation.  (This classification has been criticized because it is not very reliable–two readers will often disagree on how many parts there are.  On the other hand, the classification is powerful in that it reflects important clinical differences in terms of prognosis and treatment requirements, and thus it is still in wide use. Because of the difficulty with x-ray interpretation, the text here will use line drawings and not clinical x-rays.)


Accordingly, fracture types include:

  1. One-part fractures: no displaced fragments regardless of number of fracture lines
  2. Two-part fractures (igure 3) have one displaced fragment. Typically, the displaced fragment is either the greater tuberosity or the shaft (with a fracture across the surgical neck). Rarely, the isolated fragment is the lesser tuberosity. This latter pattern is associated with posterior dislocation.



Figure 3: Various “two part” fractures




  1. Three-part fractures (figFigure 4) have two main fracture lines: one of the surgical neck (making the shaft one of the “parts”) and another that usually displaces the greater tuberosity (the second “part”). The intact humeral head is then the third “part”. (The lesser tuberosity is only very rarely the second “part” in a 3 part3-part fracture; the figure shows the typical configuration.)

Figure 4: A “three part” fracture.

  1. Four-part fractures (fig Figure 5) have displacement across fracture lines between all four parts


Figure 5  A “four part” fracture



In addition, injuries can include fractures of the articular surface (head-splitting fractures and impaction fractures) and disruption of the gleno-humeral articular (fracture dislocation).


CT-scan may be helpful in evaluating articular involvement, degree of displacement, impression fractures and glenoid rim fractures. It can also be helpful when obtaining an axillary view is not possible.


MRI is usually not indicated unless rotator cuff integrity needs to be assessed.


Caveat: The Neer/Codman classification is used ubiquitously, though it was seen to have fairly low reliability (~50%) in reported studies. Unfortunately, CT scans do not help much either. That might be a function of the arbitrary criteria of 1 cm and 45 degrees. It may be best to “overcall” displacement in some cases: for example, treating a one-part greater tuberosity fracture as a two-part fracture, as the fragment can easily impinge even if only 9mm or 40 degrees displaced.


Proximal humerus fractures comprise about 5% of all fractures. The incidence is 300,000 per year. Mechanism is either through a high energy trauma in younger individuals or low-energy falls in the elderly. Older individuals will sustain a fracture from a fall especially if there is underlying osteoporosis. More than 2/3 of proximal humeral fractures are sustained by females. Most proximal humerus fractures (85%) are nondisplaced.


Differential Diagnosis

The list of possible diagnosis diagnoses that could explain the typical presentation of a proximal humerus fracture include a shoulder dislocation, an AC joint separation or a scapular, spinal or rib injury. Note that especially in high-energy trauma patients, concomitant injuries are common. Thus, the presence of a of a proximal humerus fracture does not exclude a second musculoskeletal diagnosis. It is also important to exclude the diagnosis of pneumothorax and hemothorax;  axillary, suprascapular, or brachial plexus nerve injury; and axillary artery damage. Damage to the rotator cuff is common with displaced fractures.


Red Flags

Proximal humerus fractures with open wounds (or impending open-wounds, e.g. tenting of the skin by bone fragments) require immediate orthopaedic referral.


Patients may report paresthesias or diminished sensation due to diffuse swelling, but a detailed neurovascular assessment is warranted especially in the setting of such symptoms. The most commonly injured nerve is the axillary nerve and it can be tested even without moving the shoulder by assessing sensation over the deltoid muscle and verifying at least isometric deltoid contraction.


Peripheral pulses may remain palpable due to collateral circulation. A vascular injury may be suspected due to mechanism or signs of expanding hematoma.


A fracture from a simple fall from a standing height may suggest osteoporosis, as well as underlying diseases that cause falling.


A visible indentation of the skin under the acromion (a subacromial sulcus) may suggest dislocation of the gleno-humeral joint.   

Treatment Options and Outcomes

Minimally displaced fractures (one-part fracture) can be treated with a short course of immobilization in a sling (10-14 days) with early shoulder motion in the form of pendulum exercises thereafter. Passive motion or active-assisted range of motion therapy is best deferred until bony union has occurred (typically 6 to 12 weeks post-injury).


The treatment of two-part fractures depends on which parts are involved. Anatomic neck fractures, often associated with disruption of the blood supply, are difficult to treat without surgery. By contrast, surgical neck and lesser tuberosity fractures can usually heal adequately with non-operative treatment. Greater tuberosity two-part fractures are more likely to need surgical fixation, either to repair the rotator cuff tear that accompanies the fracture or to prevent impingement of a fragment with superior translation.


Three-part and four-part fractures, at least among patients who can tolerate surgery, are typically treated with operative treatment.


Surgical treatment options include the following:

With closed reduction and percutaneous fixation, the fracture is reduced under fluoroscopic guidance and wires are inserted percutaneously. The aim is to stabilize the fracture enough to allow motion without excessive surgical dissection. The axillary nerve, cephalic vein and posterior humeral circumflex artery are all at risk with this technique. Also, closed reduction and percutaneous fixation is not apt to work in osteoporotic bone or if there is comminution. Lastly, a second operation may be necessary for pin removal.


Open reduction and internal fixation may also be used (igure 6). Here, after the proximal humerus fracture is exposed, the fragments are reduced. This is then followed by internal fixation with either plates or sutures.


Figure 6: howing an x-ray (A) and clinical photo (B) of surgical fixation of a proximal humerus fracture. (courtesy of https://ars.els-cdn.com/content/image/1-s2.0-S2212628717300439-gr10_lrg.jpg )


Locking plates are especially desirable for fixing osteoporotic bone. Suture fixation avoids the potential complications associated with inserting a bulky plate. At times, a hybrid approach, using both a plate and sutures can provide the best fixation.  


An intramedullary might be less invasive approach, as a full dissection is not needed; but of course it must be recalled that inserting the nail requires violation of the supraspinatus insertion (or if a more medial starting point is chosen, the superior articular surface itself).


Fractures that are unlikely to heal well (especially when the humeral head is not salvageable or there is extensive pre-existing arthritis) can be addressed with conventional joint replacement or reverse total shoulder replacement (igures 7 and igure 8). The latter is chosen when there is deficiency of the rotator cuff. 

Figure 7: A proximal humerus fracture treated with hemiarthroplasty (courtesy Andrew F. Kuntz, MD)


Figure 8: A proximal humerus fracture treated with a reverse hemiathroplasty. (courtesy Andrew F. Kuntz, MD)


Even if non-operative management can be reliably expected to result in some degree of malunion or lost motion, but approach to treatment may be desirable in some patients. Nonoperative management not only avoids the costs and potential complications associated with operative intervention, some malunion or lost motion may be well-tolerated by many low-demand patients.


In general, full functional recovery is expected following appropriately treated non-displaced proximal humerus fractures. Approximately 80% of patients treated non-operatively can expect to return to their baseline functional status within 6 six months from the time of injury. Displaced fractures that require surgery have less favorable outcomes. Even with full healing, there is often some component of arthrofibrosis and lost motion.


Approximately 75% of patients with four-part fractures develop osteonecrosis.


Proximal humerus fractures can have a significantly detrimental effect on patient’s quality of life. Injury to the dominant side further enhances disability. Shoulder injuries have a tendency to disrupt sleep, leading to effects secondary to chronic sleep deprivation/disruption.


Poor bone quality in the form of osteopenia or osteoporosis is a major risk factor for proximal humerus fracture and some patients with this fracture survive the shoulder injury but suffer complications of their underlying disease.


Risk Factors and Prevention

Osteoporosis and falling are the prime (modifiable) risk factors for proximal humerus fracture. Risk reduction involves maintenance of adequate bone mineral density (BMD) and decreasing the risk of falls. In osteopenic or osteoporotic patients, pharmacological therapy including calcium and vitamin D supplementation as well as bisphosphonates and other drug treatments have been shown to be effective in reducing the risk of fractures. For patients with comorbidities who place them at risk of falling (such as stroke) occupational therapy can be useful.



The classification of proximal humeral fractures is often associated with Dr. Charles Neer, but Dr. Neer himself credited E. A. Codman (igure 9). Codman had many accomplishments (including the notion of collecting open data, the accomplishment that he CODMAN roup [publisher of this text] honors) but his anatomic analysis of the proximal humerus is among the larger ones.


Figure 9: Ernest Amory Codman, M.D. (Wikipedia)


Key Terms

Greater tuberosity, Lesser tuberosity, Surgical neck, Anatomic neck, Axillary nerve, steonecrosis, Closed reduction, Total shoulder arthroplasty



Describe fracture patterns as seen on plain x-rays. Perform a neurologic examination of the upper extremity, assessing the relevant sensory dermatomes, and motor testing of the muscle groups associated with the radial, median, ulnar, anterior interosseus, posterior interosseous, musculocutaneous and axillary nerves.


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x Proximal Humeral Fractures JB .docx (application/vnd.openxmlformats-officedocument.wordprocessingml.document)

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Proximal Humeral Fractures 2. An x-ray highlighting the articular surface.png (image/png)

Proximal Humeral Fractures 3. Various “two part” fractures.png (image/png)

Proximal Humeral Fractures 4. A “three part” fracture.png (image/png)

Proximal Humeral Fractures 5. A “four part” fracture.png (image/png)

Proximal Humeral Fractures 6. an x-ray (A) and clinical photo (B) of surgical fixation of a proximal humerus fracture.png (image/png)

Proximal Humeral Fractures 7. A proximal humerus fracture treated with hemiarthroplasty.png (image/png)

Proximal Humeral Fractures 8. A proximal humerus fracture treated with a reverse hemiathroplasty.png (image/png)

Proximal Humeral Fractures 9. Ernest Amory Codman, M.D.png (image/png)

Proximal Humeral Fractures 1. The four osseous segments are humeral head and articular surface (1), greater tuberosity (2), lesser tuberosity (3) and humeral shaft (4).png (image/png)