Short-term Effects of Manual Therapy in Patients After Surgical Fixation of Ankle and/or Hindfoot Fracture: A Randomized Clinical Trial


Rueckert-Hartman College for Health Professions

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Background: Patients with surgical fixation of ankle and/or hindfoot fractures often experience decreased range of motion and loss of function following surgery and postsurgical immobilization, yet there is minimal evidence to guide care for these patients.

Objectives: To assess whether manual therapy may provide short-term improvements in range of motion, muscle stiffness, gait, and balance in patients who undergo operative fixation of an ankle and/or hindfoot fracture.

Methods: In this multisite, double-blind randomized clinical trial, 72 consecutive patients who underwent open reduction internal fixation of an ankle and/or hindfoot fracture and were receiving physical therapy treatment of exercise and gait training were randomized to receive either impairment-based manual therapy (manual therapy group) or a sham manual therapy treatment of light soft tissue mobilization and proximal tibiofibular joint mobilizations (control group). Participants in both groups received 3 treatment sessions over 7 to 10 days, and outcomes were assessed immediately post intervention. Outcomes included ankle joint range of motion, muscle stiffness, gait characteristics, and balance measures. Group-by-time effects were compared using linear mixed modeling.

Results: There were no significant differences between the manual therapy and control groups for range of motion, gait, or balance outcomes. There was a significant difference from baseline to the final follow-up in resting gastrocnemius muscle stiffness between the manual therapy and control groups (-47.9 N/m; 95% confidence interval: -86.1, -9.8; P = .01). There was no change in muscle stiffness for the manual therapy group between baseline and final follow-up, whereas muscle stiffness increased in the control group by 6.4%.

Conclusion: A brief course of manual therapy consisting of 3 treatment sessions over 7 to 10 days did not lead to better short-term improvement than the application of sham manual therapy for most clinical outcomes in patients after ankle and/or hindfoot fracture who were already being treated with exercise and gait training. Our results, however, suggest that manual therapy might decrease aberrant resting muscle stiffness after ankle and/or hindfoot surgical fixation.

Level of evidence: Therapy, level 2. J Orthop Sports Phys Ther 2019;49(5):310-319. Epub 13 Feb 2019. doi:10.2519/jospt.2019.8864.