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Debridement Technique and Dead Space Management For Infected Non-Union of the Tibia


Mahmoud El-Rosasy ,

Tanta University, Faculty of Medicine, EG
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Ashraf Mahmoud,

Tanta University, Faculty of Medicine, EG
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Osama El-Gebaly,

Tanta University, Faculty of Medicine, EG
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Ahmed Lashin,

Tanta University, Faculty of Medicine, EG
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Edgardo Rodriguez-Collazo

Chicago Lower Extremity Surgical Foundation, Chicago, US
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Infected non-union of the tibia represents a major challenge to orthopaedic surgeons. Wide resection of infected tissues decreases the recurrence rate of infection in post-osteomyelitis reconstruction. Such radical debridement results in bone and soft tissue defects making the challenge more difficult with creation of a dead space. Elimination of the dead space is a necessity using antibiotic-impregnated cement as a staged technique for further reconstruction of bone and soft tissue. The objective of this series is to assess the efficacy of our integrated protocol for management of infected non-union of the tibia. This prospective study included 23 patients with infected non-union of the tibia with medullary contamination managed by staged debridement and insertion of antibiotic-impregnated cement spacer with later distraction histogenesis using Ilizarov frame for bone and soft tissue reconstruction. The mean age of the patients was 24 years (19 to 52). The mean size of the defect after debridement was 6 cm (range 4–10 cm). The average follow up period was 28 months (range 16–36 months). Successful reconstruction with no recurrence of infection was achieved in all cases (100%) without the need for bone or soft tissue grafts. External fixator index ranged from 35 to 60 days/cm (average 45 days/cm). The functional results were satisfactory in 20 cases (86.9%) and unsatisfactory in 3 cases (13.1%) due to residual leg length discrepancy, joint stiffness, and persistent pain. The proposed staged protocol represents a valid option for successful bone and soft tissue reconstruction and elimination of the infection without the need of bone grafting nor soft tissue procedures.

How to Cite: El-Rosasy M, Mahmoud A, El-Gebaly O, Lashin A, Rodriguez-Collazo E. Debridement Technique and Dead Space Management For Infected Non-Union of the Tibia. International Journal of Orthoplastic Surgery. 2019;2(1):29–36. DOI:
  Published on 14 Mar 2019
 Accepted on 25 Feb 2019            Submitted on 31 Dec 2018


Infected non-union of the tibia remains to be a great challenge to orthopaedic surgeons. Due to its subcutaneous location, the tibia is vulnerable to be deprived of its soft tissue coverage with subsequent desiccation and infection of exposed bone [1]. Deep infection would ruin any reconstructive attempt unless properly debrided. Management of infected non-union of the tibia necessitates adequate debridement and reconstruction of the resultant bone and soft tissue defect [2]. Such complex reconstruction is preferably performed in a staged manner to avoid recurrence of infection [3]. After debridement, the resultant dead space invites collection of hematoma and infected transudate. Elimination of this dead space, either by acute limb shortening or insertion of a spacer would prevent such collection [4, 5].

Several articles have described the results of debridement of bone infection and the use of antibiotic-cement spacer. However, these studies included heterogeneous anatomical and etiological group of patients.

The aim of this prospective study was to evaluate the results of an integrated treatment protocol in a uniform group of patients with severely infected nonunion of the tibia. This protocol is based on staged debridement and elimination of the dead space in preparation for reconstruction of composite bone and soft tissue defect by distraction histogenesis using Ilizarov external fixator. With emphasis on the role of negative pressure wound therapy in the post-debridement phase.

Patients and methods

Twenty three adult patients aged 19 to 52 years (average 24 years) were treated in this prospective study in the period between January 2014 and June 2017. There were 4 female and 19 male patients. The study included patients with actively infected nonunion of the tibia whether following operative fixation or open fractures in adults. All patients had previous debridement procedures ranged from two to four times. Ten patients (43.5%) had retained hardware, six cases (26.1%) infected open fracture and seven (30.4)% presented with infected nonunion. All procedures performed in this study were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards. Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study. General clinical examination of the patient was done to exclude the presence of general debilitating or systemic illness. The limb was examined for the neurovascular status, skin condition, shortening, range of motion of adjacent joints as well as for clinical and biochemical evidence of active infection (draining sinus, local inflammation, pain, tenderness, swelling and elevated ESR, CRP and total leuckocytic count). Radiographs of the limb were obtained and assessed for the level and size of bone defect, bone quality and length discrepancy as well as radiological evidence of infection (cavities, sequestrated and sclerotic bone).

Multiple pus, soft tissue and bony specimens were obtained intra-operatively for culture and antibiotic sensitivity testing, and for pathology as well. Intravenous antibiotics, according to culture results, were essential in all patients for three weeks postoperatively. This was followed by oral antibiotics for further three weeks.

All patients were treated according to the protocol put forward by our surgical team [Tanta University Integrated Protocol (TUIP) for management of post-traumatic osteomyelitis of the tibia] (Figure 1).

Figure 1 

The integrated protocol for management of post-traumatic osteomyelitis of the tibia.

All cases were operated under general or epidural anesthesia in the supine position. A tourniquet was applied on the upper thigh and inflated until completion of debridement then was deflated for haemostasis.

Skin incision: Previous skin incisions were utilized with excision of the main sinuses and unhealthy skin. The dissection was performed by sharp knife elevating the skin with the deep fascia and periosteum as one layer.

Bone debridement (Phase I): The fracture-site was debrided to excise all infected and devitalized tissue with a safety margin of at least 5 mm. (oncological debridement). All retained hardware was removed. Transverse “Square” osteotomy of the bone ends was performed, to increase the bone contact surface area as the bone ends come in close proximity after completion of bone transport at the docking site. The osteotomy was performed so that the bone ends were cut shorter than the skin edge which is hanging, like a curtain, to cover the bone ends (soft tissue curtain). The medullary cavity was reamed on each side with removal of all the dead bone and infected granulation tissues.

Management of dead space (Phase II): After completion of debridement the tourniquet was deflated for haemostasis and to ensure resection of all non-viable tissues to bleeding edges. The resultant tissue defect was copiously irrigated with normal saline and packed with wet gauze. The surgical drapes and gloves were exchanged by new ones and the procedure was continued without tourniquet.

Antibiotic-loaded cement spacer insertion: Antibiotic (vancomycin powder) was added to the dry component of the cement and mixed manually (in a ratio of 3gm for each 40 gm of cement). The spacer was inserted as a cylindrical block enforced by two Kirschner wires passing into each side of the medullary cavity. This was done during the later stages of polymerization to allow for proper handling and shaping of the cement. The ends of the spacer were molded around the bone edges. It is to be noted that over-sizing of the spacer would hinder soft tissue closure.

Skin closure: After setting of the cement spacer, the wound was closed in layers over a wide-bore suction drain for 72 hours (closed wound technique) (Figure 2). If a residual soft tissue defect did not allow wound closure, then the skin edges were only approximated leaving part of the spacer exposed and a negative pressure wound therapy device (NPWT) was applied(open wound technique) (Figures 3 and 4).

Figure 2 

Closed wound technique; thirty two years old male patient presented with infected nonunited fracture tibia. Oncological debridement of infected bone was done. Filling of the 10 cm defect with antibiotic impregnated cement spacer enforced with Kirschner wires and primary closure of the wound.

Figure 3 

(A and B) open wound technique; twenty five years old male patient presented with infected nonunited fracture tibia fixed by plate and screws with exposed metal. Radical oncological debridement of all infected tissues and implants. Filling the defect with cement spacer with partial closure of the wound.

Figure 4 

(A, B and C) Clinical and radiologic follow up during bone transport show gradual spontaneous wound closure.

Immobilization: The leg was immobilized on a rigid removable splint to be replaced by a walking cast after wound healing. No external nor internal fixation was attempted in any case at this point.

Postoperative management: Postoperative leg elevation was necessary to avoid postoperative edema. Weight-bearing as tolerated was allowed throughout the treatment.

Reconstruction (Phase III): Three weeks later, the patient was readmitted for reconstruction phase in cases of open-wound technique. While in closed wound technique, it was performed six weeks after debridement phase. The cement spacer was exposed and removed en bloc or in a piecemeal fashion. An osteotome can be used to longitudinally split the cement spacer into smaller pieces before removal. After spacer removal, bone and soft tissue reconstruction were performed as one procedure using bone transport by Ilizarov external fixator for advancement of an osteomyocutaneous composite flap to bridge the defect after performing metaphyseal osteotomy. (Figures 3 and 4).

Follow up: The transport was started 7 days post-operative at a rate of 1 mm per day. Patients were taught to do distraction-compression and dressing of the wound before discharge from the hospital. Patients were seen in the clinic every two weeks during the distraction phase (to check for soft tissue problems during transport) and then every month during the consolidation phase. Radiographs were obtained in each visit to check the progress of bone transport and healing. The external fixator was removed after bone consolidation. Criteria for bone consolidation and safe removal of the external fixator have been: 1) radiological: at least three intact bone cortices and radiological density of the regenerate bone comparable to adjacent normal bone. 2) clinical: the patient should be able to stand unsupported on the treated limb for 30 seconds (the single – leg stance test).

After fixator removal, a well-fitted plaster cast was applied for one month with weight-bearing. Patients were then followed up every three months and then yearly by making radiographs and laboratory infection markers.

Evaluation of treatment outcome: The results were assessed based on both objective (clinical and radiographic evaluation) and subjective criteria (limb function and patient’s satisfaction) using our system of results’ evaluation (Table 1) [6]. The final results were considered to be satisfactory or unsatisfactory based on these findings.

Table 1

Evaluation of the results [7].

Parameter Satisfactory Unsatisfactory

Bony union United Not united
Residual deformity <5° >5°
Residual leg length discrepancy <2.5 cm >2.5 cm
Recurrent infection No more infection Bone and/or soft tissue infection
Soft tissue healing No exposed bone Soft-tissue defect remaining
Permanent joint contracture <5° >5°
Persistent pain No or mild pain Moderate or Incapacitating pain
Return to previous work Yes Has to changejob
Patient’s satisfaction Satisfied Not satisfied


Table 2 summarizes the results of the study cases. The mean size of bone defect after debridement was 6 cm (ranged from 4 to 10 cm). All patients completed the follow up which ranged from 16 to 36 months (average 28 months). Successful reconstruction with bone union and no recurrence of infection was achieved in all cases (100%) without the need of a skin graft or a muscle flap. Spontaneous consolidation of the induced biological membrane was reported during transport in 5 cases (21.7%) before reaching the docking site (Figure 5). Revision of the docking site was needed in 15 cases (65.2%) at the end of transport to clear out the invaginated skin between the bone ends and improve contact of bone ends. There was no need to insert bone graft in any case. Superficial pin tract infection occurred in all cases and was treated by daily pin site care and oral antibiotics. External fixator index, which is the number of days the patients wore the frame per cm of lengthening, ranged from 35 to 60 days/cm (average 45 days/cm). Residual limb length discrepancy (LLD) occurred in 4 cases (17.4%). The main cause for residual LLD was patient’s intolerance to the procedure. The functional results were satisfactory in 20 cases (86.9%) and unsatisfactory in 3 cases (13.1%) due to residual leg length discrepancy, joint stiffness, and persistent pain.

Table 2

Summary of results.

N %

Total number of study cases 23 cases 100%
Age 19–52 years Average 24 years
Gender Males 19 82.6%
Females 4 17,4%
Previous surgery 23 cases 100%
(2–4 operations) Average 3.1/case
Active infection 23 cases 100%
10 With retained hardware 43.5%
6 infected open fracture 26.1%
7 infected nonunion 30.4%
Revision of docking site 15 cases 65.2%
Residual LLD 4 cases 17.4%
Fixator index 35–60 Average 45 days/cm
Follow up 16–36 months Average 28 months
Satisfactory outcome 20 cases 86.9%
Unsatisfactory outcome 3 cases 13.1%
Figure 5 

Open wound technique; thirty years old male patient with infected nonunited fracture tibia fixed by intramedullary nail. Previously had a rotational fasciocutaneous flap. Oncological debridement and spacer. After completion the process of the transport the final radiological follow-up show complete consolidation. Notice the bridging proximal callus which indicates consolidation of the membrane induced by the spacer.


The management of infected nonunion depends on several factors including the host’s physiological status, the size of the defect, level of the defect, quality of the surrounding soft tissue, the presence of deformity and limb length discrepancy [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7]. Three keys for successful reconstruction of infected nonunion are: 1) Wide resection of the infected tissues with a safety margin to ensure eradication of infection. 2) square osteotomy of bone ends, for better bone contact and healing, and 3) soft tissue curtain, to avoid desiccation of exposed bone ends [8]. Adequate debridement of bone infection usually results in bone and soft tissue defects. It may be possible to achieve primary closure of the wound by direct suturing or plastic procedures at the same sitting of the debridement [9]. But this is usually non-applicable because of the bad local condition and the size of the bone defect after debridement. Various procedures were described in the literatures to overcome the problem of considerable bone defect after debridement with or without soft tissue defect. Vascularized bone autograft is a popular method in reconstruction of a segmental bone defect allowing concurrent soft-tissue coverage. However, many complications were reported including infection and stress fracture. Also, the method is technically demanding and requires expert microsurgical specialist [10, 11, 12]. An alternative approach to the problem is the induced membrane (Masquelet) technique. This technique precludes filling the defect by antibiotic impregnated cement spacer for a period followed by removal of the spacer and cancellous bone grafting with definitive internal fixation. Encouraging union rates have been reported with reported complications including re-infection, refracture and risk of graft donor site morbidity [13, 14, 15, 16]. Another well-known method in the management of infected tibial nonunion is the bone transport technique which entails debridement of all the infected tissues followed by gradual transport from far osteotomy site to close the bone and soft tissue defect. Gradual bone transport allows free drainage of infected nonunion after thorough debridement by keeping the wound open and gradually closed by means of compression – distraction. Several advantages are expected with this technique including high rate of infection clearance, bone and soft tissue reconstruction, deformity correction and limb length equalization with less need to free or local tissue grafts [6, 17, 18, 19].

A common obstacle is the presence of medullary infection during debridement. This medullary infection is usually the cause of failure of any of the above-mentioned procedures with considerable recurrence rate of infection. In the present study we present the results of an integrated management protocol of severely infected non-union of the tibia with medullary contamination by staged debridement and elimination of the dead space using antibiotic- impregnated cement spacer followed by bone transport using Ilizarov external fixator. The included cases were patients with severely infected tibial nonunion after failed previous debridement procedures. The protocol included three phases 1) oncological bone and soft tissue debridement. 2) filling the resultant space by antibiotic impregnated cement spacer with or without soft tissue closure. 3) tissue reconstruction by distraction histogenesis using the Ilizarov external fixator.

Insertion of a cylinder spacer in post-debridement defects, in infected nonunion, allows for temporization until eradication of infection. Moreover, it obliterates the dead space, permits local delivery of antibiotics, creates a tunnel for bone transport, and provides mechanical support for the surrounding soft tissue which permits application of negative pressure wound therapy (NPWT) postoperatively.

Although NPWT was originally used for staged management of open fractures with associated soft-tissue defects, The use of closed incision negative-pressure wound therapy to manage delayed wound healing and the benefits of this treatment modality include wound contraction with diminished tensile forces, stabilization of the wound environment, decreased edema and improved removal of exudates, and increased blood and lymphatic flow. In orthopaedic surgery, NPWT has been shown to be clinically effective for incisions at high risk for perioperative complications. Proven effects include an increase in blood flow, stimulation of angiogenesis, and a decrease in wound surface area. In this study, the NPWT was applied in cases of open wound technique over the spacer. We observed its benefit in suction of any residual exudates and promoting healthy granulation tissue formation. This was comparable to other studies which focused on the importance of vacuum assisted dressing [20, 21].

Bone transport overcomes the problem of bone graft shortage and decreases donor site morbidity. No bone graft was needed in our series. Furthermore, considering bone transport an advancement of osteomyocutaneous flap, it tapers off the need for soft tissue flaps. All soft tissue defects were spontaneously closed at the end of the bone transport. All soft tissue defects were spontaneously closed at the end of the bone transport. This supports the hypothesis of the osteomyocutaneous transport which entails the simultaneous transport of the soft tissue with underlying bone. Functionally, results were satisfactory in 20 cases (86.9%) and unsatisfactory in 3 cases (13.1%).

A limitation of this study is the lack of control group and relatively small number of cases.

Our results are encouraging and comparable to other studies which used the same technique of transport over induced membrane in management of infected nonunion of the tibia [21, 22]. In contrary to other studies, our protocol highlights the role of using NPWT following debridement of infected nonunion and the use of structural cement-spacer support in the latency period before embarking on tissue reconstruction.

The proposed staged protocol in the present study gave the benefit of elimination of the infection followed by the gradual tissue-transport, by Ilizarov frame, in a healthy non infected media. This allowed sound union with no need for bone grafting of the docking site, no plastic procedures and no recurrence of infection. Further longer-term study with larger sample size is planned to support and validate our protocol in management of such cases.

Ethics and Consent

No financial support was received for this study.

Funding Statement

There was no funding received for this paper.

Competing Interests

The authors have no competing interests to declare.

Author Contributions

  • Mahmoud El-Rosasy: Conception and design of the work, performed surgery and drafting the article.
  • Ashraf Mahmoud: Performed Surgery, data analysis and interpretation and wrote manuscript.
  • Osama El-Gebaly: Performed surgery, data collection and review manuscript.
  • Ahmed Lashin: Performed surgery, data collection and review manuscript.
  • Edgardo Rodriguez-Collazo: Critical revision of the article and final approval for submission.


Prof. Mahmoud El-Rosasy, MD is the guarantor.

Peer Review

This is a non-commissioned paper that has undergone external peer review according to journal policy.


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