Tears of the Triangular Fibrocartilage Complex
Ulnar sided wrist pain is a common complaint. The patient's age, hand
dominance, avocations and occupation are important historical factors, and the nature
and date of injury should be determined from the patient. Patterns of injury have been
associated with particular recreational activities (e.g. hook of the hamate fractures
with sports involving a bat or club). Neurologic complaints are common and the physical
examination should attempt to define any abnormalities. The differential diagnosis of
ulnar sided wrist pain is lengthy; a detailed history and careful physical examination
can greatly assist in focusing the diagnosis and treatment.
The term triangular fibrocartilage complex (TFCC) was originally used
by Palmer and Werner to define the group of structures that stabilize the carpus and
distal radius to the distal ulna. This complex includes the volar and dorsal radio-ulnar
ligaments, the ulnar collateral and ulno-carpal ligaments and the articular disc. The
articular disc separates the carpal bones from the distal radio-ulnar articulation. The
complex is central to three biomechanical functions of the wrist: 1) stability of the
distal radioulnar joint (DRUJ); 2) axial load transmission from the carpus to the ulna
and; 3) ulnar sided carpal stability.
TFCC lesions were classified by Palmer in the Journal of Hand Surgery,
1989. There are two main categories, traumatic and degenerative.
- Horizontal tear adjacent to the radius.
- Peripheral detachment from the ulna.
- Tear of the Ulnocarpal ligaments.
- Avulsion from sigmoid notch.
- Partial thickness thinning of the articular disc.
- A + Chondromalacia of lunate and/or ulnar head.
- B + full thickness tear of the articular disc.
- C + Partial tear of the lunatotriquetral ligament.
- D + Full tear of the lunatotriquetral ligament and arthrosis.
Examination of the TFCC is performed in conjunction with a thorough exam
of the wrist, elbow and hand including neurovascular structures. Direct palpation of the
bony and soft tissue structures of the ulnar side to localize point tenderness is the most
helpful examination maneuver. Tenderness radial or ulnar to the extensor carpi ulnaris
(ECU) tendon with the wrist in neutral rotation may be consistent with a TFCC lesion. The
DRUJ is examined with the elbow on a table in front of the examiner. The DRUJ is stressed
with one of the examiners hand grasping the distal ulna and the other grasping the radius.
Volar and dorsal translation is assessed in neutral, pronation and supination. A TFCC grind
test is performed with the wrist in ulnar deviation and dorsiflexion with an axial load
applied to the hand by the examiner as the carpus is rotated on the fixed forearm.
Radiographs aid in establishing the diagnosis of a malunion of the distal radius or a
nonunion of the ulnar styloid. Fractures at the base of the ulnar styloid are more likely
to be associated with a TFCC injury that will produce persistent symptoms if untreated.
Ulnocarpal abutment is more likely in patients with ulnar positive or ulnar neutral
- Patients with injuries to the wrist, particularly displaced distal radius fractures, should be examined after reduction for instability of the DRUJ.
- The majority of patients presenting with ulnar sided wrist pain can be managed non-operatively and returned to normal activities.
- The central component of the TFCC can be excised to a stable rim without compromising its biomechanical function.
- The differential diagnosis of ulnar sided wrist pain is lengthy. A careful examination of the ulnar side of the wrist will frequently rule in others causes of patients' symptoms.
- The dorsal branch of the ulnar nerve crosses from volar to dorsal in the region of ulnar (6U) wrist arthroscopy portals. Careful dissection and protection of this nerve is mandatory to prevent complications.
Recommended initial management of traumatic TFCC injuries based on history
and physical examination is 4 weeks of immobilization. The intimate relationship of the
articular disc and the DRUJ typically requires the use of an above elbow cast. At 4 weeks,
patients are begun on range of motion and strengthening exercises and progress as tolerated.
Surgical management is indicated for failure of conservative treatment.
Degenerative lesions are more common in patients with ulnar positive
variance. Recommended initial treatment includes activity modification, splinting and
non-steroidal medications. The author's experience has been that patients with negative
or neutral ulnar variance are more likely to respond to conservative treatment. If
conservative management fails, surgical intervention may be indicated.
Surgical treatment of lesions of the TFCC continues to evolve. Traumatic
lesions are typically classified at the time of diagnostic arthroscopy. Wrist arthroscopy
is performed with the wrist in 10 pounds of traction to facilitate visualization of the
TFCC. The portals for visualization and manipulation of the TFCC include 3-4, 4-5 and 6R
portals. 1A or central lesions are the most common traumatic injury seen. Arthroscopic
debridement of the unstable edges of the tear is typically recommended. Cadaveric studies
have demonstrated that excising the central two thirds of the articular disc does not
alter the biomechanical functions of the TFCC. Post-operatively patients are encouraged
to do immediate mobilization. Return to work or athletics is usually within 6-12 weeks.
The finding of a peripheral detachment of the TFCC (Type 1B) is not always
as obvious at arthroscopy as one might anticipate. A helpful diagnostic maneuver is the
trampoline sign that is elicited with a probe in the 4-5 portal and the arthroscope in
the 3-4 portal. The elasticity of the articular disc is tested with the probe and a
positive test is loss of the normal tissue tautness. (Figure 1A,1B) Peripheral tears are
through the vascular zone of the TFCC and are typically repaired. A variety of techniques
have been described including open, arthroscopically assisted and arthroscopic techniques.
For the outside-in technique, a small incision is made just ulnar to the ECU tendon and
blunt dissection is performed to insolate and protect the dorsal branch of the ulnar nerve.
Two Tuhoy needles are used to penetrate the wrist capsule and the articular disc in the
appropriate location and a horizontal mattress suture is used with 2.0 nonabsorbable suture
in an outside-in technique. Two or three sutures are placed and tied over the capsule. Care
is taken to ensure the dorsal branch of the ulnar nerve and extensor tendons are not trapped
in the suture. Post-operatively the patient is immobilized for 4 to 6 weeks in a Munster
cast to eliminate rotation of the forearm, and an additional 2 to 4 weeks in a wrist splint.
Return to full activity is allowed at 3 months.
Treatment of type 1C and 1D TFCC injuries has not received as much attention
as the more common injury patterns, and thus choice of treatment remains controversial.
Classically it was believed that radial detachments would not heal and were debrided to
stable edges, unless there was a bony fragment attached to the articular disc. Recently,
open and arthroscopically assisted repair of avulsion of the TFCC from the sigmoid notch
(1D lesions) has been described but outcome data is limited. Distal avulsions (1C) are the
least common injury pattern described in most series. Whether debridment or repair of 1C or
1D lesions is superior is unclear at present.
Treatment of degenerative lesions of the TFCC depends on the Palmer
classification stage. Lesions classified as 2A or 2B are typically treated nonoperatively
with anti-inflammatories, splinting and activity modification. An extra-articular ulnar
shortening or an intra-articular "wafer" procedure (with removal of 2-4mm of distal ulna)
can be considered in the unusual case of symptoms refractory to these measures. If the
lesion has progressed to stage 2C a TFCC debridement is performed. If the patient is ulnar
positive, this may be combined with a "wafer" procedure. Treatment of stage 2D lesions
includes an ulnar shortening and treatment of the wrist instability if it is substantial.
Stage 2E lesions may present with substantial degeneration of the ulnar carpus and typically
require a salvage procedure.
Dr. Blazar is an Assistant Professor of Orthopaedic Surgery, Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School.
Please address correspondence to:
Dr. Philip Blazar
Department of Orthopaedic Surgery
Brigham & Women's Hospital
75 Francis Street
Boston, MA 02115
- Kleinman WB, Graham TJ. "Distal Ulnar Injury and Dysfunction" in Surgery of the Hand and Upper Extremity. New York, New York, Mcgraw-Hill. 1996.
- Fulcher SM, Poehling GG. The role of operative arthroscopy for the diagnosis and treatment of lesions about the distal ulna. Hand Clinics.14(2):285-96.1998.
- Graham TJ (ed.) Problems about the distal end of the ulna. Hand Clinics. May 1998.
- Botte M. et. al. Arthroscopy of the wrist: Anatomy and Technique. Journal of Hand Surgery. 14A:313-6, 1989.
- Palmer AK, Werner FW. The triangular fibrocartilage complex of the wrist-Anatomy and function. Journal of Hand Surgery. 6A:151-162, 1981.
- Palmer AK. Triangular fibrocartilage complex lesions: A classification. Journal of hand Surgery. 14A:594-605.1989.