Case In Point

Application of Hand Therapy Extensor Tendon Protocol to Toe Extensor Tendon Rehabilitation

An innovative application of a hand extensor tendon repair protocol was applied by the hand therapy service to toe extensors when the hand surgery service was called in to repair toe extensor lacerations.

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Plastic and orthopedic surgeons worked closely with therapists in military hospitals to rehabilitate soldiers afflicted with upper extremity trauma during World War II. Together, they developed treatment protocols. In 1975, the American Society for Hand Therapists (ASHT) was created during the American Society for Surgery of the Hand meeting. The ASHT application process required case studies, patient logs, and clinical hours, so membership was equivalent to competency. In May 1991, the first hand certification examination took place and designated the first group of certified hand therapists (CHT).1

In the US Department of Veterans Affairs collaboration takes place between different services and communication is facilitated using the electronic heath record. The case presented here is an example of several services (emergency medicine, plastic/hand surgery, and occupational therapy) working together to develop a treatment plan for a condition that often goes undiagnosed or untreated. This article describes an innovative application of hand extensor tendon therapy clinical decision making to rehabilitate foot extensor tendons when the plastic surgery service was called on to work outside its usual comfort zone of the hand and upper extremity. The hand therapist applied hand extensor tendon rehabilitation principles to recover toe extensor lacerations.

Certified hand therapists (CHTs) are key to a successful hand surgery practice. The Plastic Surgery Service at the Malcom Randall VA Medical Center in Gainesville, Florida, relies heavily on the CHTs to optimize patient outcomes. The hand surgery clinic and hand therapy clinics are in the same hospital building, allowing for easy face-to-face communication. Hand therapy students are able to observe cases in the operating room. Immediately after surgery, follow-up consults are scheduled to coordinate postoperative care between the services.

Case Presentation

A 66-year-old man with a history of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and spinal stenosis presented to the emergency department (ED) with a right dorsal foot wound and an exposed lacerated tendon after dropping a mirror on his foot (Figure 1). He was unable to extend his third toe. The ED physician called the in-house plastic surgery service, which can expedite upper extremity tendon injuries to clinic and surgery if indicated.2

The next day, the patient was examined in the plastic surgery clinic and found to have a completely lacerated extensor digitorum brevis to the second toe and a completely lacerated extensor digitorum longus to the third toe. These were located proximal to the metatarsal phalangeal joints. Surgery was scheduled for the following week.

In surgery, the tendons were sharply debrided and repaired using a 3.0 Ethibond suture placed in a modified Kessler technique followed by a horizontal mattress for a total of a 4-core repair. This was reinforced with a No. 6 Prolene to the paratendon. The surgery was performed under IV sedation and an ankle block, using 17 minutes of tourniquet time.

On postoperative day 1, the patient was seen in plastic surgery and occupational therapy clinic. The hand therapist modified the hand extensor tendon repair protocol since there was no known protocol for repairs of the foot and toe extensor tendon. The patient was placed in an ankle foot orthosis with a toe extension device created by heating and molding a low-temperature thermoplastic sheet (Figure 2). The toes were boosted into slight hyper extension. This was done to reduce tension across the extensor tendon repair site. All of the toes were held in about 20°of extension, as the extensor digitorum longus (EDL) has a common origin, to aide in adherence of wearing and for comfort. No standing or weight bearing was permitted for 3 weeks.

A wheelchair was issued in lieu of crutches to inhibit the work of toe extension with gait swing-through. Otherwise, the patient would generate tension on the extensor tendon in order for the toes to clear the ground. It was postulated that it would be difficult to turn off the toe extensors while using crutches. Maximal laxity was desired because edema and early scar formation could increase tension on the repair, resulting in rupture if the patient tried to fire the muscle belly even while in passive extension.

The patient kept his appointments and progressed steadily. He started passive toe extension and relaxation once per day for 30 repetitions at 1 week to aide in tendon glide. He started place and hold techniques in toe extension at 3 weeks. This progressed to active extension 50% effort plus active flexion at 4 weeks after surgery, then 75% extension effort plus toe towel crunches at 5 weeks. Toe crunches are toe flexion exercises with a washcloth on the floor with active bending of the toes with light resistance similar to picking up a marble with the toes. He was found to have a third toe extensor lag at that time that was correctible. The patient was actively able to flex and extend the toe independently. The early extension lag was felt to be secondary to edema and scar formation, which, over time are anticipated to resolve and contract and effectively shorten the tendon. Tendon gliding, and scar massage were reviewed. The patient’s last therapy session occurred 7 weeks after surgery, and he was cleared for full activity at 12 weeks. There was no further follow-up as he was planning on back surgery 2 weeks later.


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