A right hand–dominant 46-year-old man presents to the emergency department (ED) with a 1-cm laceration of his volar right wrist that occurred after he slipped on a wet floor while carrying a ceramic dish. The patient fell with his hand outstretched and landed on the dish as it broke against the floor. The patient has no pain but complains of tingling in his fingers. Past medical history is negative for diabetes, hypertension, or any neurologic disorders. Social history includes smoking one-half pack of cigarettes per day and drinking 6 to 10 12-oz beers each weekend. He works as a machinist.
Physical examination shows no bony tenderness. There is a 1.0-cm transverse laceration at the base of the hand at the midline of the volar wrist crease. Flexion, extension, and strength of the fingers are intact, as are dull and sharp discrimination to the thumb and other fingers. A cotton-tip applicator is used for gross sensory testing. No other neuromuscular assessment of the hand is performed. An x-ray of the hand to rule out a fracture or ceramic foreign body is negative.
The wound is locally anesthetized with 1% xylocaine without epinephrine. The laceration is irrigated with normal saline solution and closed with 4-0 nylon sutures using conventional bedside-suturing technique. A sterile bandage is applied. After-care instructions include wound care and follow-up with the patient’s family physician in 1 week for suture removal.
The patient returns to the ED 4 days later, complaining of increased tingling and weakness of the thumb and index and middle fingers. Repeat neuromuscular examination shows decreased sensation and dull/sharp discrimination, and abnormal static 2-point discrimination of the thumb and index and middle fingers. Based on the location of the laceration, the follow-up provider suspects a median nerve injury. After a telephone consultation with a hand surgeon, the patient is told to come into the office in 2 days.
Subsequent follow-up by the hospital’s risk manager indicates that the hand surgeon found a transected median nerve, requiring surgery to repair it. The patient has resulting deficits in sensation and strength and requires extensive occupational therapy. The risk management team learns that the patient intends to file a malpractice suit.
Hand and finger injuries represent about 20% of ED visits and are among the most costly injuries for the employed population.1 Knife and glass lacerations of the fingers are most common.2 Failure to diagnose significant hand and finger injuries is also a major contributor to malpractice claims in the ED.3 It is imperative for the PA or NP working in a high-stress/high-volume environment to perform a thorough neuromuscular and vascular examination when encountering a traumatic hand injury or a laceration. This applies to all frontline practices, including urgent care, ED, and primary care and family practices.
Volar surface lacerations of the wrist and fingers are especially high risk.2 Small lacerations (< 2 cm for fingers and < 3 cm for wrist and forearm) may lead a provider to consider the injury minor; however, these have the greatest potential for missed significant deep injuries.2 Missed median nerve lacerations can result in major complications if not surgically repaired soon after the injury.4
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