Content uploaded by Peter Smitham
All content in this area was uploaded by Peter Smitham on Oct 05, 2017
Content may be subject to copyright.
Send Orders for Reprints to firstname.lastname@example.org
The Open Orthopaedics Journal, 2017, 11, 291-296 291
1874-3250/17 2017 Bentham Open
The Open Orthopaedics Journal
Content list available at: www.benthamopen.com/TOORTHJ/
Plaster of Paris–Short History of Casting and Injured Limb
B. Szostakowski, P. Smitham and W.S. Khan*
University College London Institute of Orthopaedics and Musculoskeletal Science, Royal National Orthopaedic
Hospital, Stanmore, HA7 4LP, London, UK
Received: February 08, 2017 Revised: March 02, 2017 Accepted: March 09, 2017
Abstract: Various materials have been used since ancient times to help immobilise fractures. In this review, we discuss the history
and developments of these materials as well as plaster of Paris. There has been a recent trend away from non-operative management
of fractures, and skills in the use of plaster of Paris are declining. For the successful treatment of patients, it is important to appreciate
how plaster works, how it should be used, and what can go wrong. In this review, we also discuss principles of applications and
complications of plaster of Paris.
Keywords: Immobilisation, Plaster of Paris, Non-operative management, Fractures, Complications.
HISTORY OF INJURED LIMB IMMOBILIZATION
Immobilization of injured limbs has been performed for thousands of years. Before contemporary casting materials
became widely used, people used a variety of materials to form rigid casts. Over the centuries immobilization has
evolved from using simple wooden splints and rags to plaster of Paris, fibre and soft casts.
The earliest examples of the active management of fractures in humans were discovered at Naga-ed-Der in 1903
during the Hearst Egyptian Expedition of the University of California lead by Dr. GA Reisner [1, 2]. In a paper
published in the British Medical Journal in 1908, Mr. G. Elliot-Smith describes two sets of splints that were found
during excavations of tombs from the fifth dynasty (2494-2345 BC) . One of the earliest descriptions of casting
material was by Hippocrates in 350 BC. He wrote about wrapping injured limbs in bandages soaked in wax and resin
[1, 4]. According to the earliest known surgical text The Edwin Smith Papyrus (copied circa 1600 BC), the Egyptians
were using self setting bandages, probably derived from those used by the embalmers [1, 4]. Later descriptions of
casting came from the Arab physician Rhazes Athuriscus . El Zahrawi (960-1013 AD), a surgeon born near Córdoba
in Spain, described the use of both clay gum mixtures and flour and egg white as casting materials . Starch based
casts appear to have been the standard treatment with only minor changes until the beginning of the 19th century with
only a few minor changes .
Further advances in the choice of materials were made during the wars. In the 18th century, Henri François Le Dran,
who practiced surgery at Hôpital de la Charité in Paris and was a surgeon in Germany Army and consulting surgeon to
the camps and armies of King Louis XV, used to soak his bandages with egg white, vinegar and clay powder or plaster
[1, 6]. A modification to the materials used was introduced by the father of modern military surgery, Baron Dominique
Jean Larrey, a French surgeon in Napoleon’s army. He was surgeon in chief from 1797 till the Battle of Waterloo in
1815 . Larrey’s modification was adopted from Don Eugenio de la Penna who bandaged the fracture with linen that
had first been moistened with Camphor spirit, egg whites and lead-acetate. Unfortunately these were not used on a large
* Address correspondence to this author at the University College London Institute of Orthopaedics and Musculoskeletal Science, Royal National
Orthopaedic Hospital, Stanmore, HA7 4LP, London, UK, Tel: +44 (0) 7791 025554; Fax: +44 (0) 20 8570 3864; E-mails: wasimkhan@doctors.
292 The Open Orthopaedics Journal, 2017, Volume 11 Szostakowski et al.
scale due to costs . Baron Louis Joseph G Seutin (1793-1862) was a belgian professor and surgeon in chief at the
Universite Libre de Bruxelles. As a chief doctor of the Belgian Army he fought in at Waterloo. He became famous for
inventing starch bandages known as “La Bandage Immobile” or “L’Appareil Amidonnee” that consisted of strips of
linen or bandages and carton splints, soaked in starch and wrapped around the limb [1, 8, 9].
Seutin’s method was popular in England by Joseph Samson Gamgee, the Birmingham surgeon who amongst other
things invented Gamgee tissue. In the first half of the 19th century, it was not popular to reduce fractures until the
swelling of the soft tissue decreased. Following Seutin’s rules Gamgee insisted on immediate reduction and application
of the starched apparatus, and registered spectacular success [10, 11].
ORIGINS OF PLASTER OF PARIS
Plaster of Paris is produced by removing the impurities from the mined gypsum and then heating it under controlled
conditions to reduce the amount of water of crystallization . Plaster of Paris was well known as a building material
for many centuries before it was introduced as casting material. Egyptians as well as Romans used it for plastering walls
however not more is known on plaster use after the end of Roman occupation. In modern day England, it was widely
excavated in Roman coffins discovered in York, and on the walls in the military barracks of the Second Augustian
Legion excavated at Caerleon in Monmouthshire . In mediaeval times gypsum was used only for alabaster statuary
. There are various accounts describing the origin for the name plaster of Paris. One account mentions King Henry III
who visited Paris in 1254 and was so impressed by fine white walls that he introduced similar plastering in England
where it became known as plaster of Paris.
The first use of plaster of Paris as a cast for injured limbs took place through a technique known as plâtre coulé that
became popular in Europe at the beginning of 19th century. This technique involved pouring plaster of Paris around
injured limbs encased in a wooden construct. Due to the weight of the construct, the patient was largely confined to bed
during the period of fracture healing. This disadvantage was highlighted by Seutin, but this remained a relatively
popular technique in Europe with some surgeons using it for lower limbs only and some using it for both upper and
lower. Starched and albuminated bandages were also used as a casting method .
In 1839, Lafargue of St. Emilion used fresh warm starch paste mixed with plaster of Paris powder applied to layers
of linen strips. That dressing had the advantage of hardening much quicker, reducing setting time down to six hours [8,
13]. The Dutch military surgeon Anthonius Mathijsen while working at the military hospital in Haarlem discovered that
bandages soaked in water and plaster of Paris were becoming hard within minutes providing sufficient casting for
injured limbs. He published his monograph in 1852 in a medical magazine called Repertorium. His plaster bandage was
based on the principles of Seutin, who 10 years earlier introduced starched bandages known as bandage amidonnee [1,
8]. In his paper entitled “New Method for Application of Plaster-of-Paris Bandage”, Mathijsen highlighted many
disadvantages of Seutin’s dressings including lack of self-adjustment to the changing conditions of the limb, long
duration of days needed for the casing to become sufficiently solid, carton splints shrinking and becoming shorter when
they dried off adversely affecting fractures, and in cases of suppuration or with small children urinating, dressing
becoming soft and loosen . Mathijsen’s bandages consisted of strips of coarse cotton cloth with finely powdered
plaster rubbed in. This method of preparation was used until 1950.
Nikolay Ivanovich Pirogov, a head of the department of surgery at the St Petersburg Medico-Surgical Academy and
a Russian army surgeon during the Crimean War, conceived his idea to use plaster splints around 1852 while observing
the work of a sculptor who used strips of linen soaked in liquid plaster to make models. Pirogov used coarse cloth,
either in large pieces or in strips that were immersed in a liquid mixture of plaster of Paris immediately before applying
them to limbs protected by stockings and cotton pads. Based on his Crimean experience, Pirogov believed that all
patients with fractures due to missile wounds should not be evacuated from the forward dressing stations until the limb
had been immobilized in a proper dressing of plaster of Paris . After the war he refined his method by cutting coarse
sail cloth to a defined pattern shaped to fit a part of body and soaking it in plaster before application [1, 4].
Use of plaster of Paris bandages for fracture casts became widespread after Mathijsen’s death and replaced most
other forms of splintage . Early plaster bandages used at hospitals were made by nursing staff. They were usually
freshly made from plaster powder kept in air tight containers that was applied on to the woven bandage or strips of
cloths. Care was required while soaking dry bandage in water to prevent the plaster coming off the bandages and
dissolving in water. In the early 1930’s, the first commercially manufactured bandages were available in Germany.
They were made by spreading plaster mixed with minute quantities of volatile liquids on soft cloth.
Plaster of Paris The Open Orthopaedics Journal, 2017, Volume 11 293
APPLICATION OF PLASTER OF PARIS
Plaster of Paris (2CaSO4.H2O) is calcium sulphate with water. It is prepared by heating gypsum (CaSO4.2H2O) at
120°C to allow partial dehydration. When mixed with water, it gives out heat and quickly sets to a hard porous mass
within 5 to 15 minutes. The first step is called the setting stage with a slight expansion in volume. The second stage is
the hardening stage.
Properties of plaster of Paris bandages have not greatly changed since their first use in the 19th century. Plaster is
still widely popular, it is cheap, non-irritant and easy to apply. As quoted by AJ Steele in his article from 1893 on the
use of plaster of Paris in orthopaedics, “The property of rapidly hardening when once wet, gives to plaster its value.
Additionally it has merit in its cheapnesss and convenience; it is ever ready, is easily prepared, and simple in its
application” . In 1906, Meisenbach published a 24 pages study on plaster of Paris bandages in the American
Journal of Orthopaedic Surgery. He outlined the four essential properties of plaster dressings to include strength, quick
set, light weight and ventilation, summarizing that ideal plaster dressing should be thin and strong .
Plaster can be used not only for treatment of fractured bones but also supports sprained ligaments, and inflamed and
infected soft tissues. It usually sets in few minutes, but needs between 36-72 hours to completely dry. Leg plasters are
able to bear weight after 48 hours. Completely dry casts when tapped with knuckles will sound crisp and clear whereas
wet casts emit a dull sound. Cast should only be dried by natural methods. No artificially generated heat is
recommended. Despite its frequent use, allergic reactions to plaster of Paris are extremely uncommon. There are only a
few cases of allergic contact dermatitis from benzalkonium chloride described in the literature ; benzalkonium
chloride has been used as an additive in certain brands of plaster of Paris since the 1970’s in order to improve its
binding properties . When plaster of Paris dries off it becomes porous which helps to maintain patient’s skin free
from moisture. It is radiolucent which makes X-ray examination possible. The strength of the plaster cast is determined
by the quality of plaster, water to gypsum ratio, product age and storage conditions .
The success of non-operative treatment of fractures relies on a clear understanding of fracture healing and the proper
use of stabilizing techniques. Non-operative management of fractures has been declining in recent years due to
significant advances in operative technology and greater patient expectations of an early return to activity. Younger
surgeons are not as familiar with non-operative treatment of fractures with a plaster cast as their predecessors. This is
due to a lack of experience in application of plaster casts and the subsequent management. Plaster of Paris is unique and
still remains the favoured casting material in many countries. It is cheap, non-toxic, and can easily be moulded to the
desired shapes and contours of the body. Skin irritation and allergy is extremely rare.
Application of plaster of Paris requires good knowledge of anatomy and pathology that we are aiming to treat. It has
to be applied with a great care that is also need in its supervision afterwards. The perfect plaster dressing must retain the
limb under all conditions in the desired position with complete comfort. It must be strong yet light, effective in use but
easily removed when no longer required .
Prior to casting, any skin lesions or soft tissue injuries must be carefully noted. It is important to observe and
document neurovascular status of the extremity, and this needs to be repeated following application of plaster. Patients
with neuropathy or neurologic deficits are at greater risk for skin problems with abnormal sensation under the plaster. It
is crucial that plaster bandages are rolled on to the limb and not pulled. Figure of eight turns, creases and ridges have to
be avoided. Rubbing and massaging plaster bandages during application helps to bond layers together creating stronger
and lighter casts. Plaster bandages should be soaked in tepid or slightly warm water. Plaster sets quicker with warm
water compared with cold water. The faster the material sets the greater heat produces and the greater the risk of burns
. Fast setting plasters have increased risk of thermal injury [12, 16]. There is a risk if casts are allowed to dry resting
on pillow. Temperature elevations could be related to the plaster being dipped too briefly and the water being squeezed
too aggressively out of the plaster. The water helps release heat, and if there is not enough, the plaster gets hotter.
Lavalette and Ganaway proposed that pre-existing plaster residue in the water might also play a role in elevating
cast temperature by maintaining the peak temperature for a longer period, therefore water should be clean [12, 14].
Water temperature of 32 degrees Celcius can be high enough to cause burns. Moritz and Henriques showed that 6 hours
at 44 degrees Celcius can cause a third degree burn [12, 14].
A fiberglass cast is a newer synthetic alternative to plaster of Paris. Fiberglass cast is a lightweight and extremely
strong material. Fiberglass, also called glass-reinforced plastic (GRP) or glass fiber reinforced plastic (GFRP) is a fiber
reinforced polymer made of a plastic matrix reinforced by fine glass. As compared to traditional plaster of Paris cast, it
294 The Open Orthopaedics Journal, 2017, Volume 11 Szostakowski et al.
is light in weight and more durable. It is three times stronger and but is only one third in weight. Fiberglass cast is a
lightweight and extremely strong material. Fiberglass cast is used for fracture management but is not applied in the
acute settings because it is less accommodating to swelling and does not allow moulding.
COMPLICATIONS ASSOCIATED WITH SPLINTING AND CASTING
There are risks associated with plaster cast immobilization and patient has to be made aware of these. Patients with
known diabetes or sensory impairment due to spinal cord injury are those who need particular attention at the time of
plaster application and later. Below we discuss some common complications.
1. Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT)
Prolonged lower limb immobilization in plaster carries the risk of deep vein thrombosis (DVT) that the patient has
to be made aware of. Two independent studies found that adults treated with a lower extremity cast for an average of 3
weeks had an incidence of DVT between 15% and 36%. Low molecular weight heparin did not significantly reduce the
risk of developing DVT [22 - 24]. Although these are more common in the lower limbs, these have also been described
in upper limb immobilisation.
2. Compartment Syndrome
One of the most serious complications to be considered is compartment syndrome. This is a condition in which
increased pressure within a limited space compromises the circulation and function of the tissues within that space.
Compartment syndrome may lead to fatal complications including major loss of limb function and even death [25, 26]
and are more common in lower leg and forearm fractures.
3. Soft Tissue Swelling
Soft tissue swelling associated with the fractured limb will usually subside within 48 hours from the injury leaving
the cast loose. This may lead to displacement of well positioned or reduced fracture, and the reapplication of a new
well-fitted cast may be needed. This is more likely to be an issue with unstable fractures. This is more noticeable in
lower limb injuries where after education and elevation, swelling can reduce significantly. It is vital to ensure sufficient
padding with swelling to prevent complications.
4. Pressure Sores
Plaster pressure sores can occur as a result of poor plastering technique associated with inadequate skeletal
protection or failure to trim the extremities of the cast correctly. Foreign bodies especially with young children can be
easily misplaced in the cast and exert pressure on the skin that can lead to a break in the skin. Every patient should be
warned about dangers of scratching beneath the cast with different sharp implements as this can cause infection. Cutting
windows in plasters and leaving them unprotected may lead to oedema developing within the window area that will lead
to soreness of the skin at the margins. Bivalving casts can be considered as an alternative to enable inspection.
5. Venous Congestion
Swelling or blue discoloration of the extremities suggests impaired venous return due to tightness of the plaster. The
blue discoloration of venous congestion must be differentiated from bruising.
There are a number of other complications that relate to long periods of immobilization and include joint stiffness,
muscle atrophy, cartilage degradation, ligament weakening, and osteoporosis. Some risks can be minimized with correct
casting technique . It is important to make patients aware of what can potentially go wrong with a plaster cast.
Our review article shows that plaster of Paris has stood the test of time and is still commonly used. Although there
have been developments with the use of the lighter, stronger and more durable synthetic fiberglass of Paris, plaster of
Paris is still more widely used as it can be used in the acute setting and allows moulding. It is important to appreciate
the complications and how these can be avoided to ensure we continue to use it safely.
CONFLICT OF INTEREST
The author confirms that this article content has no conflict of interest.
Plaster of Paris The Open Orthopaedics Journal, 2017, Volume 11 295
 Browner BD, Jupiter JB, Levine AM, Trafton PG, Krettek C, Green NE. The history of fracture treatment. In: Skeletal Trauma. Saunders
2008; pp. 1-32.
 Freuler F, Wiedmer U, Bianchini D. Cast manual for adults and children. Springer-Verlag 1979.
 Smith GE. The most ancient splints. Br Med J 1908; 1(2465): 732-736.2.
[http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.1.2465.732] [PMID: 20763747]
 The history and function of plaster of paris in surgery. Welwyn Garden City: Smith and Nephew 1967.
 Nabri IA. El Zahrawi (936-1013 AD), the father of operative surgery. Ann R Coll Surg Engl 1983; 65(2): 132-4.
 Billroth T. Historical studies on the nature and treatment of gunshot wounds from the fifteenth century to the present time. Yale J Biol Med
1932; 4(3): 224-57.
 Brewer LA III. Baron Dominique Jean Larrey (1766-1842). Father of modern military surgery, innovater, humanist. J Thorac Cardiovasc Surg
1986; 92(6): 1096-8.
 Mathijsen A. New method for application of plaster-of-Paris bandage. 1852. Clin Orthop Relat Res 2007; 458(458): 59-62.
[http://dx.doi.org/10.1097/BLO.0b013e31803def0c] [PMID: 17473601]
 Mott V. Travels Europe and the East Embracing observations 1834-1841. New York: Harper 1842.
 Kapadia HM. Sampson Gamgee: a great Birmingham surgeon. J R Soc Med 2002; 95(2): 96-100.
[http://dx.doi.org/10.1258/jrsm.95.2.96] [PMID: 11823557]
 Gamgee JS. On the advantages of the starched apparatus in the treatment of fractures and diseases of joints. London: HK Lewis 1853.
 Simmons EH, Cox LA. A clinical and experimental study of plaster of Paris bandages in Canada. Can Med Assoc J 1957; 76(11): 941-6.
 Hutchinson MJ, Hutchinson MR. Factors contributing to the temperature beneath plaster or fiberglass cast material. J Orthop Surg 2008; 3:
[http://dx.doi.org/10.1186/1749-799X-3-10] [PMID: 18298851]
 Peltier LF. Fractures: A history and iconography of their treatment. San Francisco: Norman Publishers 1990.
 Steele AJ. Plaster of Paris in orthopaedics. Trans Am Orthop Assoc 1893; 15(1): 71-83.
 Meisenbach RO. A study of plaster of Paris bandages. Am J Orthop Surg (Phila Pa) 1906; 24(1): 1-24.
 Wong DA, Watson AB. Allergic contact dermatitis due to benzalkonium chloride in plaster of Paris. Australas J Dermatol 2001; 42(1): 33-5.
[http://dx.doi.org/10.1046/j.1440-0960.2001.00469.x] [PMID: 11233718]
 Stanford D, Georgouras K. Allergic contact dermatitis from benzalkonium chloride in plaster of Paris. Contact Dermat 1996; 35(6): 371-2.
[http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1600-0536.1996.tb02427.x] [PMID: 9118641]
 Barlow D, Bansal R, Barlow T, Rhee SJ, Kuiper JH, Makwana NK. Effect of cotton padding on the setting properties of plaster slabs. Ann R
Coll Surg Engl 2013; 95(2): 107-9.
[http://dx.doi.org/10.1308/003588413X13511609956291] [PMID: 23484991]
 Plaster of Paris. Lancet 1935; 226(5848): 723-4.
 Boyd AS, Benjamin HJ, Asplund C. Principles of casting and splinting. Am Fam Physician 2009; 79(1): 16-22.
 Jørgensen PS, Warming T, Hansen K, et al. Low molecular weight heparin (Innohep) as thromboprophylaxis in outpatients with a plaster cast:
a venografic controlled study. Thromb Res 2002; 105(6): 477-80.
[http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S0049-3848(02)00059-2] [PMID: 12091045]
 Lapidus LJ, Rosfors S, Ponzer S, et al. Prolonged thromboprophylaxis with dalteparin after surgical treatment of achilles tendon rupture: a
randomized, placebo-controlled study. J Orthop Trauma 2007; 21(1): 52-7.
[http://dx.doi.org/10.1097/01.bot.0000250741.65003.14] [PMID: 17211270]
 Halanski M, Noonan KJ. Cast and splint immobilization: complications. J Am Acad Orthop Surg 2008; 16(1): 30-40.
[http://dx.doi.org/10.5435/00124635-200801000-00005] [PMID: 18180390]
 Matsen FA III, Krugmire RB Jr. Compartmental syndromes. Surg Gynecol Obstet 1978; 147(6): 943-9.
296 The Open Orthopaedics Journal, 2017, Volume 11 Szostakowski et al.
 Malik AA, Khan WS, Chaudhry A, Ihsan M, Cullen NP. Acute compartment syndromea life and limb threatening surgical emergency. J
Perioper Pract 2009; 19(5): 137-42.
© 2017 Szostakowski et al.
This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International Public License (CC-BY 4.0), a
copy of which is available at: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/legalcode. This license permits unrestricted use, distribution, and
reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.