Why do we splint? Splinting is one of the fundamental procedures of the Emergency Department (ED). How well-versed are we with it? Why do we even splint? By the end of this post, you will know the reason why we splint, when to splint, and just as importantly — when NOT to splint in the ED.
- Understand the types of splint applications
- Understand when not to apply a splint
The Bottom Line
Splints are not just used for fractures and sprains. They are also used for laceration repairs, tendon lacerations, and severe soft tissue injuries. They can definitively treat some fractures and serve as a temporary treatment for others. Acutely, they are preferred to casts because they allow room for swelling. Be cautious when considering splinting a musculoskeletal injury if the fracture is open, or there is concern for compartment syndrome, acute neurovascular compromise, chronic neuropathy, infection, and/or complex regional pain syndrome.
Compared to a fully circumferential cast, a splint is a non-circumferential immobilizer. Both are aimed at stability, flexibility, and protection, but a cast is less flexible and does not accommodate swelling as well. Commonly thought of as an initial stabilizer, splints can also sometimes serve as definitive treatment for fractures and sprains. In the immediate setting, splints have been shown to reduce pain and prevent injury to surrounding nerves, vessels, and soft tissue.1–3 The goal in applying a splint is to restore musculoskeletal limb function (appropriate alignment, muscle strength, sensation, and pain-free range of motion).4 Compared to casts, splints promote quicker healing, earlier return to function, and mobility in injuries such as ankle sprains. As a result, patients are more satisfied.5–7
Uses and Advantages
Splints are an excellent ED tool that can temporarily stabilize fractures requiring orthopaedic intervention,2 more definitively treat certain stable fractures,1,2,8–10 reduce pain, and speed healing in soft tissue injuries such as a sprain.2,6,11
With the appropriate training, splints are easy and quick to apply. By molding the splint material appropriately (read more at SplintER 102 post), you direct bone alignment by exerting pressure (but not too much!) on the soft tissues.12 Splints are non-circumferential and allow for the inevitable swelling that follows an acute musculoskeletal injury. Depending on the type of injury, a splint can be applied to prevent motion or to assist in functional movement.9 In comparison, a cast is more technically difficult and given its circumferential nature, increases the risk for compartment syndrome and pressures sores.13
Be aware that splints are not limited to only fractures and sprains. They are also useful in protecting severe soft-tissue injuries and laceration repairs across joints.2
Indications for a splint
- Definitive management for certain fractures 1,8–10
- Stabilization of fractures that require definitive care 2,14
- Sprains 2,6,11
- Reduced joint dislocations 15
- Severe soft-tissue injuries 2
- Laceration repairs across joints 2
- Tendon lacerations or ruptures 2
When should I NOT splint immediately?
There are no absolute contraindications to using a splint. But there are some reasons not to splint immediately. Reconsider if you should be splinting a patient when you have any of the following:16,17
1. Open fracture
While a splint can be used to stabilize an open fracture to maintain length and alignment,18 an open fracture will require operative irrigation and debridement before appropriate reduction and splinting.17
2. Concern for compartment syndrome or acute neurovascular compromise
If there is concern for impending compartment syndrome or neurovascular compromise, a splint can apply enough pressure to compressible tissues to cause worsening vascular compromise and necrosis.17
3. Chronic neuropathy or complex regional pain syndrome
Any neuropathy, such as diabetic neuropathy, increases the risk for pressure ulceration in a splint/cast due to chronic vascular compromise. This may result in the patient not feeling whether an ulcer is developing within the splint/cast.16,17
4. Evidence of infection
Splinting over an infected area can create an optimal growing condition for bacteria while also preventing direct visualization needed for serial skin examinations.17
Read more SplintER series articles.