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This is a plain English summary of an original research article. The views expressed are those of the author(s) and reviewer(s) at the time of publication.

This NIHR funded trial showed that conservative treatment involving a sling was as effective as surgery for treating people with displaced fractures of the upper arm. A linked economic analysis showed that surgery was not cost-effective. These kinds of shoulder fractures are common and disabling, and mainly affect people over 65. Slings are already used as the main treatment for undisplaced fractures. Surgical treatment of displaced fractures is becoming more common. This evidence could help reverse the trend, reducing complications to patients and costs to the NHS.

Why was this study needed?

Proximal humeral fractures are common, accounting for 5-6% of all adult bone fractures. Half of these fractures are displaced. Most people with this type of fracture are over 65 and have fragile bones from osteoporosis and the number affected in this age-group is increasing. Surgery is expensive and involves more time in hospital than conservative treatment, with added risks of complication such as infection. A 2012 Cochrane review of 23 studies, and a 2014 meta-analysis of six studies, found that there was insufficient evidence in favour of either surgery or conservative treatment. The NIHR funded this trial to provide clearer evidence on the issue.

What did this study do?

PROFHER was a randomised controlled trial involving 250 people, average age 66, at 32 UK hospitals. It compared surgical and nonsurgical treatment for adults with displaced fractures of the neck of the humerus. People with shoulder dislocation or with multiple injuries were excluded. Participants were assigned to have surgical treatment or the affected arm immobilised in a sling. Both groups received physiotherapy. During two years of follow-up, patients reported their shoulder pain, its function, and their quality of life.

The trial was sufficiently large and run in NHS hospitals. All surgical and conservative treatments used followed good practice. The results should therefore be considered reliable and relevant to UK practice.

What did it find?

  • Over two years follow-up there was no difference in shoulder pain or function scores between people who had shoulder surgery or a sling (the surgery group averaged over the two years 39.07, and the sling group 38.32, on the 48 point "Oxford Shoulder Score" scale)
  • There remained no difference in the results when analysed by type of fracture, hospital where treated, patient age or smoking status
  • There was no difference in quality of life over two years

What does current guidance say on this issue?

There are currently no UK guidelines that give recommendations on how to treat fractures of the neck of the humerus. Consequently there is likely to be wide variation in practice between hospitals.

What are the implications?

The evidence from the PROFHER trial shows that a sling was as effective as surgery for treating displaced fractures of the proximal humerus.

A linked cost-effectiveness analysis showed that after two years the cost of surgery was, on average, £1780.73 more per patient than the cost of using a sling. Using a sling is likely to be safer, causing fewer complications, especially in older people.

Based on the evidence, commissioners and clinicians could consider reducing the numbers of surgical interventions for this condition.


Rangan A, Handoll H, Brealey S, Jefferson L, Keding A, Martin BC, et al. Surgical vs Nonsurgical Treatment of Adults With Displaced Fractures of the Proximal Humerus: The PROFHER Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA. 2015;313(10):1037-47. This project was funded by the National Institute for Health Research HTA Programme (project number 06/404/53).


Bell J-E, Leung BC, Spratt KF, et al. Trends and variation in incidence, surgical treatment, and repeat surgery of proximal humeral fractures in the elderly. The Journal of Bone & Joint Surgery. 2011;93(2):121-31.

Handoll HHG, Ollivere BJ, Rollins KE. Interventions for treating proximal humeral fractures in adults. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2012,(12): CD000434

Handoll H, Brealey S, Rangan A, et al. The ProFHER (PROximal Fracture of the Humerus: Evaluation by Randomisation) trial - a pragmatic multicentre randomised controlled trial evaluating the clinical effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of surgical compared with non-surgical treatment for proximal fracture of the humerus in adults. Health Technol Assess. 2015 Mar;19(24):1-280.

Neer II, CS. Displaced proximal humeral fractures. Part I. Classification and evaluation. J Bone Joint Surg Am. 1970;52:1077-1089.

Neer II, CS. Displaced proximal humeral fractures. Treatment of three-part and four-part displacement. J Bone Joint Surg Am. 1970;52:1090-1103.

Zhi M, Lihai Z, Licheng Z, et al. Operative versus nonoperative treatment in complex proximal humeral fractures. Orthopedics. 2014;37(5):e410-e9.

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The PROFHER trial used the Neer Classification of displaced proximal humeral fractures. It is based on the number of fractured parts of the humerus (up to 4), and the displacement (measured by the angle or distance between the fractured parts). Neer counted the fracture as displaced if the break separation exceeded 1cm or the angle was at least 45 degrees. The Neer classification and the AO classification of proximal humeral fractures are together the most frequently used classification tools for this type of injury.


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