Dislocated Elbow

Dislocated elbows are one of the most common types of dislocation. Falls and sports injuries are the usual causes. Never try to push your elbow back into place, and don’t let anyone other than a professional healthcare provider reset it. Go to the emergency room as soon as you think you have a dislocation.


What is a dislocated elbow?

A dislocated elbow happens when any of the three bones in your elbow joint are knocked or pushed out of place. Dislocating your elbow can be very painful and make it hard (or impossible) to move your elbow.

A joint is any place in your body where two bones meet. They’re part of your skeletal system. You have hundreds of joints throughout your body. They support your body from head to toe. Your elbow joint is where three bones in your arm come together:

  • The humerus (your upper arm bone).
  • The ulna (the longer bone in your forearm).
  • The radius (the shorter bone in your forearm).

A dislocated elbow can also strain or tear the tissues around your joint, including your:

Go to the emergency room if you experience a dislocation or can’t move your elbow. Never try to force your elbow back into place on your own.

Types of dislocated elbows

Healthcare providers classify dislocations based on how far the bones in your joints were moved:

  • Complete dislocations (luxation): A complete dislocation happens when the bones in your joint are totally separated and pushed out of place.
  • Subluxation: This is the medical term for a partial dislocation. You have a subluxation if something pulls your joint apart and the bones still touch, just not as completely as usual.

Providers also classify elbow dislocations based on the damage to your joint and the surrounding tissue:

  • Simple elbow dislocation: Injury to the ligaments that support your elbow, but no injury to the bones that form your elbow joint.
  • Complex elbow dislocation: Severe injuries to your ligaments and tendons, and broken bones (fractures).
  • Severe elbow dislocation: Damage to the nerves and blood vessels around your elbow.

How common are dislocated elbows?

Elbows are one of the most commonly dislocated joints each year. Only shoulders and fingers are dislocated more often.


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Symptoms and Causes

What are symptoms of a dislocated elbow?

The most common symptoms of a dislocated elbow include:

  • Bruising.
  • Your elbow looking noticeably different or out of place.
  • Pain.
  • Swelling.
  • Being unable to move or use your elbow.
  • A feeling of instability or like your elbow is weaker than usual.

What causes elbow dislocations?

Any force that’s strong enough to push your elbow joint out of place can cause a dislocation. The most common causes include:

  • Falls — especially catching yourself or bracing for an impact with your arms stretched out in front of you.
  • Car accidents.
  • Sports injuries.

Grabbing or lifting a child by the arm can dislocate their elbow. This type of partial dislocation is sometimes called nursemaid elbow.

Elbow dislocation risk factors

Anyone can dislocate an elbow, but some people are more likely to experience a dislocation, including:

  • Athletes who play a contact sport.
  • People older than 65.
  • Children younger than 16.
  • People with health conditions that weaken their joint ligaments like Ehlers-Danlos syndrome and joint hypermobility syndrome.
  • People who overuse their elbows, especially doing repetitive motions at work or throwing for a sport.


What are complications of a dislocated elbow?

The most common complications of dislocations are damage to the bones and tissues around your elbow, including:

Diagnosis and Tests

How are dislocated elbows diagnosed?

A healthcare provider will diagnose a dislocated elbow with a physical exam. They’ll look at your elbow and the rest of your arm. Tell your provider about any symptoms you’re experiencing and what you were doing right before you injured your elbow.

What tests will be done to diagnose a dislocated elbow?

Your provider might need to do some of the following imaging tests to diagnose damage inside your body after a dislocation:


Management and Treatment

How are dislocated elbows treated?

The most important treatment for a dislocated elbow is putting your joint back in its correct place. Your healthcare provider might call this manipulation or a closed reduction. Go to the emergency room right away if you think your elbow might be dislocated.

Don’t try to push your joint back in place by yourself. Don’t let anyone who’s not a trained, professional healthcare provider move or touch your injured elbow. Try to hold your elbow as still as possible and don’t force yourself to use it.

If you try to force a dislocated elbow back in place on your own, you can make your injury worse and damage the tissue around it.

After your provider puts your joint back in place, you might need other treatments, including:

  • Immobilization: Wearing a splint or sling will hold your elbow in place while it heals.
  • Medication: Your provider will tell you which medication you can take to reduce pain and inflammation. Don’t take over-the-counter pain relievers for more than 10 days in a row without talking to your provider.
  • Rest: You’ll need to avoid any physical activity that uses or puts stress on your elbow. Ask your provider which activities to avoid while you’re recovering.

Dislocated elbow surgery

Most people don’t need surgery after dislocating their elbow. You may need surgery if:

  • The injury that dislocated your elbow caused other damage inside your body.
  • A closed reduction doesn’t work or isn’t possible. In this case, you’ll need surgery to reset your elbow joint.
  • You experience a severe or complex dislocation.

What is the recovery time for a dislocated elbow?

It usually takes several weeks to recover from a simple elbow dislocation. You’ll need to keep your elbow immobilized for a week or two to heal. After your elbow has healed enough to use it, you’ll need physical therapy for a few weeks. Your physical therapist will help you regain your range of motion (how far you can move your elbow).

Complex and severe elbow dislocations take longer to heal. Your provider will explain to you what to expect.

Ask your provider how long you need to wait before you resume physical activities. If you return to playing sports or working out before your elbow has fully healed you have an increased risk of reinjuring it — including dislocating it again.


Can I prevent a dislocated elbow?

You can’t always prevent a dislocated elbow. It usually happens because of an accident or trauma. But there are steps you can take to reduce your risk.

During sports or other physical activities:

  • Wear the right protective equipment.
  • Don’t “play through the pain” if your elbow hurts during or after physical activity.
  • Give your body time to rest and recover after intense activity.
  • Stretch and warm up before playing sports or working out.
  • Cool down and stretch after physical activity.

Follow these general safety tips to reduce your risk of an injury:

  • Make sure your home and workspace are free from clutter that could trip you or others.
  • Always use the proper tools or equipment at home to reach things. Never stand on chairs, tables or countertops.
  • Use a cane or walker if you have difficulty walking or have an increased risk of falls.

Outlook / Prognosis

What is the outlook for a dislocated elbow?

Most dislocated elbows heal completely. You should start to feel better as soon as your joint is back in its place. You might not be able to extend your elbow as far as you could before dislocating it, but this won’t affect your ability to use it.

Will I need to miss work or school with a dislocated elbow?

As long as your job or schoolwork doesn’t require you to put extra pressure on your elbow, you shouldn’t have to miss work or school. But you won’t be able to drive while wearing an elbow brace or splint. Ask your provider when you can return to sports, doing chores or lifting heavy objects.

Living With

When should I go to the emergency room?

Go to the emergency room right away if you experience a trauma or think you have a dislocated elbow.

Never try to reposition a dislocated elbow on your own. Don’t let anyone other than a healthcare provider push your joint back into place.

What questions should I ask my doctor?

  • Which type of dislocation do I have?
  • Which treatments will I need?
  • Which type of immobilization will I need?
  • Will I need surgery?
  • How long will it take me to recover?
  • When can I return to playing sports or doing physical activities?

Additional Common Questions

Can a dislocated elbow heal itself?

A dislocated elbow won’t heal on its own, and it won’t heal properly unless a healthcare provider diagnoses and treats it.

Go to the emergency room if you have any symptoms of a dislocation after a fall, sports injury or accident.

How serious is a dislocated elbow?

All types of dislocations are serious injuries that need treatment right away. Even though most people recover in a few weeks, a dislocated elbow is an emergency that needs to be treated like one. Go to the emergency room if you think you might have dislocated your elbow. Don’t try to use your elbow until a healthcare provider evaluates and treats it.

A note from Cleveland Clinic

A dislocated elbow happens when something pushes the parts of your elbow joint out of their usual places. Dislocations can be scary injuries, especially because you might not be able to use your arm.

Never try to push your joint back into place on your own. Don’t let anyone who’s not a trained healthcare provider try either. A coach or loved one might have your best intentions in mind, but they can make the dislocation worse or cause other complications if they try to reset your joint.

Go to the emergency room right away if you think your elbow is dislocated.

Medically Reviewed

Last reviewed on 05/11/2023.

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