Fracture of the distal radius is a common clinical problem, particularly in older people with osteoporosis. There is considerable variation in the management, including rehabilitation, of these fractures. This is an update of a Cochrane review first published in 2002 and last updated in 2006. The aim was to examine the effects of rehabilitation interventions in adults with conservatively or surgically treated distal radial fractures. Randomised controlled trials (RCTs) or quasi-RCTs evaluating rehabilitation as part of the management of fractures of the distal radius sustained by adults. Rehabilitation interventions such as active and passive mobilisation exercises, and training for activities of daily living, could be used on their own or in combination, and be applied in various ways by various clinicians. The review authors independently screened and selected trials, and reviewed eligible trials. We contacted study authors for additional information. We included 26 trials, involving 1269 mainly female and older patients. With few exceptions, these studies did not include people with serious fracture or treatment-related complications, or older people with comorbidities and poor overall function that would have precluded trial participation or required more intensive treatment. Only four of the 23 comparisons covered by these 26 trials were evaluated by more than one trial. Participants of 15 trials were initially treated conservatively, involving plaster cast immobilisation. Initial treatment was surgery (external fixation or internal fixation) for all participants in five trials. Initial treatment was either surgery or plaster cast alone in six trials. Rehabilitation started during immobilisation in seven trials and after post-immobilisation in the other 19 trials. As well as being small, the majority of the included trials had methodological shortcomings and were at high risk of bias, usually related to lack of blinding, that could affect the validity of their findings. Based on GRADE criteria for assessment quality, we rated the evidence for each of the 23 comparisons as either low or very low quality; both ratings indicate considerable uncertainty in the findings.For interventions started during immobilisation, there was very low quality evidence of improved hand function for hand therapy compared with instructions only at four days after plaster cast removal, with some beneficial effects continuing one month later (one trial, 17 participants). There was very low quality evidence of improved hand function in the short-term, but not in the longer-term (three months), for early occupational therapy (one trial, 40 participants), and of a lack of differences in outcome between supervised and unsupervised exercises (one trial, 96 participants).Four trials separately provided very low quality evidence of clinically marginal benefits of specific interventions applied in addition to standard care (therapist-applied programme of digit mobilisation during external fixation (22 participants); pulsed electromagnetic field (PEMF) during cast immobilisation (60 participants); cyclic pneumatic soft tissue compression using an inflatable cuff placed under the plaster cast (19 participants); and cross-education involving strength training of the non-fractured hand during cast immobilisation with or without surgical repair (39 participants)).For interventions started post-immobilisation, there was very low quality evidence from one study (47 participants) of improved function for a single session of physiotherapy, primarily advice and instructions for a home exercise programme, compared with ‘no intervention’ after cast removal. There was low quality evidence from four heterogeneous trials (30, 33, 66 and 75 participants) of a lack of clinically important differences in outcome in patients receiving routine physiotherapy or occupational therapy in addition to instructions for home exercises versus instructions for home exercises from a therapist. There was very low quality evidence of better short-term hand function in participants given physiotherapy than in those given either instructions for home exercises by a surgeon (16 participants, one trial) or a progressive home exercise programme (20 participants, one trial). Both trials (46 and 76 participants) comparing physiotherapy or occupational therapy versus a progressive home exercise programme after volar plate fixation provided low quality evidence in favour of a structured programme of home exercises preceded by instructions or coaching. One trial (63 participants) provided very low quality evidence of a short-term, but not persisting, benefit of accelerated compared with usual rehabilitation after volar plate fixation.For trials testing single interventions applied post-immobilisation, there was very low quality evidence of no clinically significant differences in outcome in patients receiving passive mobilisation (69 participants, two trials), ice (83 participants, one trial), PEMF (83 participants, one trial), PEMF plus ice (39 participants, one trial), whirlpool immersion (24 participants, one trial), and dynamic extension splint for patients with wrist contracture (40 participants, one trial), compared with no intervention. This finding applied also to the trial (44 participants) comparing PEMF versus ice, and the trial (29 participants) comparing manual oedema mobilisation versus traditional oedema treatment. There was very low quality evidence from single trials of a short-term benefit of continuous passive motion post-external fixation (seven participants), intermittent pneumatic compression (31 participants) and ultrasound (38 participants).
The available evidence from RCTs is insufficient to establish the relative effectiveness of the various interventions used in the rehabilitation of adults with fractures of the distal radius. Further randomised trials are warranted. However, in order to optimise research effort and engender the large multicentre randomised trials that are required to inform practice, these should be preceded by research that aims to identify priority questions.