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What is an elbow fracture?
An elbow fracture is a fracture at the tip of the elbow. This can happen as a result of trauma such as a direct blow, falling on the elbow or falling on an outstretched hand.
Are there different elbow fracture types?
There are three main types of elbow fractures. These include:
- Olecranon fractures: The pointy tip of your elbow (the olecranon) is part of the ulna — one of the two bones that make up the forearm. The olecranon is especially vulnerable to breakage because it’s not covered or protected by muscles.
- Radial head fractures: The radial head connects with the humerus (the upper arm bone). This type of fracture usually occurs when a person tries to break a fall with their arm. As a result, the radial head pushes into the humerus and causes a fracture.
- Distal humerus fractures: The distal humerus connects the shoulder to the elbow. Fractures of this bone aren’t common, but they can occur as a result of trauma or falling onto a bent elbow.
How common are elbow fractures?
Elbow fractures are quite common, especially among children. According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, 10% of all bone fractures affecting children are elbow fractures.
Symptoms and Causes
What causes a fractured elbow?
A fractured elbow may be the result of trauma, such as an accident or sports injury. This type of fracture also occurs when a person tries to break a fall on an outstretched arm.
What are some fractured elbow symptoms?
While some elbow fractures cause intense, sudden pain and visible deformity, others may exhibit more subtle symptoms. Common fractured elbow symptoms include:
- Swelling near the back of the elbow.
- Stiffness of the elbow.
- Bruising around the elbow or arm.
- Numbness or weakness in your hand or fingers.
- Tenderness to the touch.
- Pain when rotating your forearm.
- Feeling as though your elbow is going to “pop out” of joint.
What does a fractured elbow look like?
In some cases, a fractured elbow is visibly deformed. This means that the elbow is dislocated or that bones are out of place. However, not all elbow fractures result in visible deformity.
What are the early signs of a fractured elbow?
If there’s no visible deformity, a person with a fractured elbow might notice localized swelling, bruising and tenderness to the touch. In many cases, there is immediate pain or a “popping” sound upon impact.
Diagnosis and Tests
How do you know if you have fractured your elbow?
Your healthcare provider will perform an examination and ask you questions about your symptoms. They will also:
- Feel around the elbow to see if there are other areas of tenderness.
- Check your skin for cuts from bone fragments.
- Check your pulse at the wrist to make sure there is good blood flow to your hand and fingers.
- Check your range of motion.
What tests will be done to diagnose a fractured elbow?
In addition to a visual examination, your healthcare provider will also take scans to determine the extent of damage. These imaging tests may include:
- CT (computed tomography) scans.
- Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI).
- Musculoskeletal ultrasounds.
Management and Treatment
How are elbow fractures treated?
Treatment depends on the severity of your elbow fracture. There are two main approaches:
- Non-surgical treatments: When a person has non-displaced fracture, it means that the bone is broken but it’s still in the correct position. Non-displaced fractures can usually be corrected with non-surgical treatments such as casts or splints or a sling.
- Surgical treatments: When the bone has moved out of place, it’s called a displaced fracture. People with displaced fractures typically require surgery to reconstruct the elbow. This involves moving the bones back into their proper positions and holding them in place with pins, screws and plates.
Do you need a cast for a fractured elbow?
It depends. Some people may need to wear a cast to keep their elbow stable during healing. In some cases, however, a brace, splint or sling is worn instead. Ask your healthcare provider which treatment is best for your situation.
How are fractured elbow treated in children?
Elbow fractures in children are treated with either non-surgical (with a cast, splint or sling) or surgical methods (with pins, screws or plates). Prompt treatment is imperative for young children because their bones are still developing. Correcting the problem immediately is much more predictable. Waiting too long could lead to improper bone alignment or permanent damage.
How can I reduce my risk for elbow fractures?
While it’s not possible to prevent elbow fractures altogether, there are a few things you can do to reduce your risk. For example:
- Wear appropriate protective equipment when playing sports.
- Exercise routinely to maintain optimal strength.
- Learn proper techniques when playing sports.
- If possible, take steps to reduce your likelihood of falling.
Outlook / Prognosis
How long does a fractured elbow take to heal?
Your recovery timeline depends on the extent of your injury. In most cases, people with elbow fractures will be in a cast or splint for at least three to six weeks. Many people can return to normal activities in about four months, though full healing can take a year or longer.
What should I expect after treatment?
Some people experience stiffness or a lack of mobility after their cast or splint comes off. These side effects should diminish over time. Your healthcare provider may recommend physical or occupational therapy to accelerate healing and help you regain strength and range of motion.
When should I contact my healthcare provider?
If you’ve sustained an injury that resulted in sharp, sudden pain in your elbow, visit your nearest emergency room or express care immediately. Prompt diagnosis and treatment is necessary to ensure proper healing.
How can I manage symptoms after an elbow fracture?
Following treatment for a broken elbow, there are several things you can do to foster a comfortable recovery. For example:
- Take all medications as prescribed: You healthcare provider will recommend over-the-counter pain medications — such as acetaminophen, ibuprofen or naproxen — to reduce swelling and discomfort.
- Elevate your arm: Keeping your arm elevated relieves swelling and prevents excess pressure from affecting your nerves and blood vessels.
- Rest: For the first few days, rest as much as possible. Leave the cast or splint in place and follow all guidelines given by your healthcare provider.
Frequently Asked Questions
Do I have a fractured elbow or a torn ligament?
When a ligament is stretched or torn, it’s called a sprain. In most cases, people who’ve sprained their elbow can still move it, though it may cause discomfort. A sprain can exhibit similar symptoms as a fracture, so it’s important to see your healthcare provider for a proper diagnosis. They will perform a physical examination and take X-rays to determine if your elbow is fractured.
What is the most common elbow fracture?
The most common elbow fracture is an olecranon fracture, which occurs at the very tip of the elbow. This area is susceptible to fractures because it’s not protected by muscles and other tissues.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
If you’ve sustained an injury to your elbow, you should see your healthcare provider right away. Even if you can move your arm or elbow, you may still have a broken bone. Immediate medical attention is necessary to avoid permanent stiffness or damage.
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