An external pelvic fixator is a surgical procedure that stabilizes a broken hip or pelvic bone. A surgeon will use small screws, pins, and carbon fiber bars to stabilize the fracture.

Doctors may use the technique to stabilize the pelvis until healing is complete. Alternatively, they may use it temporarily until a person can undergo another surgery.

According to a 2020 study, an external pelvic fixator surgery can control bleeding, reduce the need for blood transfusions, and improve a person’s outlook. The risks involve infection and injury to nerves or blood vessels.

Keep reading to learn more about an external pelvic fixator, including its uses, benefits, risks, what to expect, and alternatives.

An X-ray of an external pelvic fixator.Share on Pinterest
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An external pelvic fixator is a device doctors use during surgery to treat an unstable pelvic fracture.

It involves making small incisions, or cuts, into the skin and muscle to insert small screws and pins into the pelvic bone. The screws and pins project out of the skin on both sides of the pelvic bone and attach to carbon filter bars outside the skin.

This creates a stabilizing frame to keep broken bones in the correct position.

In most cases, the pelvic fixator is a temporary measure.

Research states that doctors use an external fixator to repair a fracture from major trauma to the pelvic bone. Causes of trauma may include:

  • motorcycle or motor vehicle accidents
  • accidents involving pedestrians and motor vehicles
  • crush injuries
  • falls from a significant height, such as a horse or ladder

One use entails stabilizing the pelvic bone until a fracture heals completely. However, in people who are unable to tolerate a more complex, lengthy surgery, doctors may use an external fixator as a temporary measure until another surgery is possible.

According to orthopedic surgeon Andrea L. Snow, MD, doctors often use the procedure to stabilize a fracture while someone heals from more serious injuries.

“People have usually sustained substantial traumatic injuries beyond fracture of the pelvis that can be life threatening,” she says. “They can be unstable and actively hemorrhaging, or bleeding, from the pelvic injury.”

Because injuries requiring pelvic fixation are usually serious, the recovery time can be lengthy. “Once the fracture becomes stable, doctors usually remove the external fixator and repair the pelvis from the inside using plates and screws,” says Dr. Snow.

An external fixator is a relatively safe procedure that can benefit a person considerably. Despite this, doctors typically use them when someone has experienced a traumatic accident, so the surgery may be a high risk procedure. The individual might be in shock and have lost a significant amount of blood.

Scientific evidence states it can stabilize a broken pelvis, reducing the need for blood transfusions and increasing survival rates. It can also help control bleeding.

“Using the pelvic external fixator within hours of injury in the operating room is one of the measures that can close down the volume of the pelvis,” said Dr. Snow. “This closes down the potential space for bleeding.”

According to Dr. Snow, there are minimal risks relating to the procedure. “This is because the procedure is minimally invasive, performed through small incisions, and is left in place only temporarily,” she says.

However, pelvic fixators are often necessary for severe injuries. The extent of a person’s injuries, blood loss, and other complications may contribute to a risk of death.

Research suggests that possible complications may include the following:

  • loss of fixation
  • infection
  • injury to a nerve or blood vessel

The only initial alternative treatment to a pelvic external fixator is a pelvic binder. This is a strap that doctors use to compress the pelvic area.

“Doctors can apply the binder or a sheet in the emergency room once they detect an unstable pelvic fracture,” said Dr. Snow. “This closes down the pelvic volume and helps stop bleeding.”

However, pelvic binders have drawbacks.

“One disadvantage is that they can cause pressure sores if left on too long,” says Dr. Snow. “They are not an option if someone needs general abdominal surgery to address an injury.”

An external pelvic fixator is a surgical procedure that stabilizes a pelvis fracture. It involves the use of pins and screws to attach the pelvic bone to a carbon filter bar outside of the skin.

The recovery time can be lengthy, since a person with such a fracture may have other serious injuries. However, its benefits include controlling bleeding and the need for blood transfusions, while risks may include infection and the loss of fixation.