Research Article: Application of 3D–printed and patient-specific cast for the treatment of distal radius fractures: initial experience

Date Published: November 9, 2017

Publisher: Springer International Publishing

Author(s): Yan-Jun Chen, Hui Lin, Xiaodong Zhang, Wenhua Huang, Lin Shi, Defeng Wang.


Distal radius fracture is common in the general population. Fracture management includes a plaster cast, splint and synthetic material cast to immobilise the injured arm. Casting complications are common in those conventional casting technologies. 3D printing technology is a rapidly increasing application in rehabilitation. However, there is no clinical study investigating the application of a 3D–printed orthopaedic cast for the treatment of bone fractures. We have developed a patient-specific casting technology fabricated by 3D printing. This pioneering study aims to use 3D–printed casts we developed for the treatment of distal radius fractures, to provide the foundation for conducting additional clinical trials, and to perform clinical assessments.

Ten patients with ages between 5 and 78 years are involved in the clinical trial. Patients are applied 3D–printed casts we developed. Orthopaedic surgeons carried out a six-week follow-up to examine clinical outcomes. Two questionnaires were developed for the assessment of clinical efficacy and patients’ satisfaction. These questionnaires are completed by physicians and participating patients.

A 3D–printed cast creates a custom-fitted design to maintain the fractured bone alignment. No loss of reduction is found in all patients. Compartment syndrome and pressure sores are not present. Patient comfort gets positive scores on the questionnaire. All (100%) of the patients opt for the 3D–printed cast instead of the conventional plaster cast.

A patient-specific, 3D–printed cast offers a proper fit to immobilise an injured arm and holds the fracture reduction appropriately. A custom-fitted structure reduces the risk of pressure-related complications due to the high and concentrated local stress. The ventilated and lightweight design minimises interference with a patient’s daily activities and reduces the risk of cutaneous complications. Patients express a strong preference for using a 3D–printed cast instead of a plaster cast. Limitations of the novel cast include a slight odour after heavy sweating and the relatively high cost due to the limitations of current 3D printing technologies.

This pioneering study is the first clinical trial on the application of a 3D–printed cast for the treatment of forearm fractures. The novel casting technology heals the fracture effectively without casting complications. The 3D–printed cast is patient-specific and ventilated as well as lightweight, and it features both increased patient comfort and satisfaction.

Partial Text

Distal radius fractures are common skeletal injuries and occurred at all ages of the general population [1, 2]. These types of fractures are reported as having one of the highest incidences accounting for over 15% of bone fractures [3, 4]. Distal radius fracture management usually includes a plaster cast, splint, and a moulded synthetic material cast to immobilise the injured upper extremity [5–9]. A normal course of the treatment includes the application of a cast and several follow-up clinical visits lasting four to six weeks [7, 10, 11]. The traditional casts are described as having both poor ventilation and an improper fit, while also causing discomfort. These morbidities associated with conventional casts may result in cast complications such as cutaneous diseases, bone and joint injuries, or malunion [7, 12, 13]. The rate of cast-related complications published is high with up to 31% being reported in published studies [14].

Ten patients (age range from 5 to 78 years old) including four males and six females are involved in the clinical trial. There were six patients who suffered distal radius and ulnar styloid fractures. Distal radius fractures were present in three patients. One patient sustained fractures of both the distal radius and ulna. Exclusion criteria included pathological/open fractures, fractures requiring internal fixation and patients who were not available for local follow-up. All clinical trials were performed in southern China where the weather was humid and warm, normally above 30 degrees Celsius during the clinical testing period. Patients first underwent closed reduction using traditional plaster cast fixation due to tissue swelling. The first treatment stage lasted for one week after swelling subsided. 3D–printed orthopaedic casts developed by our published techniques [16] were applied to these patients after one week fixation. Two follow-up examinations and investigations were performed about the second and sixth week after the application of the 3D–printed cast [11, 19].

A personalised and 3D–printed cast is fabricated as a split structure with two half parts but still keeps the circumferential structure when applied to an injured extremity. A short arm cast extends from the mid-forearm to the distal, proximal crease [8] (Fig. 4). In some mild cases with slight injuries of a forearm, a short arm cast can extend from the mid-forearm to the middle area between the wrist and distal crease (Fig. 4).Fig. 4A short arm cast extends from the mid-forearm to the distal or proximal crease. To consider the mobilisation of the wrist for a slight injury, a short arm cast can also extend from the mid-forearm to just above the wrist crease

An appropriate casting technique not only holds the fracture reduction at a proper anatomic position but also minimises the risks of complications related to distal fracture. Complications including cutaneous diseases, compartment syndrome and vascular comprise, have been reported in conventional cast application due to the unbalanced pressures and high stiffness [3, 12]. Traditional casting creating mould utilising plaster and thermoplastic has rigid structure without flexibility and poor ventilation. In addition, the swelling of soft tissue occurring in an injured forearm at the initial stage makes it difficult to create patient-specific features. 3D–printed casts are featured as patient-specific and fully ventilated as well as lightweight structures [16]. 3D–printing technology is an image-based technology combined with rapid prototyping that can create a patient-specific cast in terms of injury regions and severity. An orthopaedic surgeon performs the closed reduction for a displaced fracture followed by casting fixation. Patient-specific features of casting play an important role to maintain the alignment and avoid loss of closed reduction. Moreover, the custom-fit structure ensures the matching surface geometry between the cast and arm and thus disperses pressure. The ventilated structure featured in the novel cast confers the benefits of improved patient comfort and reduced risk of cutaneous complications.

This study performs a pilot study with the focus on the clinical trial for the treatment of distal radius fracture using patient-specific and 3D printing cast developed by our published techniques. The novel cast performs circumferential support for the fractured forearm and prevents the injury from external impact. The patient-specific design maintains the alignment of fracture bones and creates the custom-fit and moderate wearing pressure to avoid compartment syndrome and pressure sores, which is considered as the casting complication to challenge conventional casting technology. The ventilated structure and fashionable design of the novel cast combined with the 3D printing fabrication increase patient comfort and satisfaction. Superior clinical outcomes have been obtained from clinical trials.




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