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Elbow Dislocation

Elbow Dislocation: Symptoms, Treatment, & Recovery

Elbow dislocations are suffered by children and adults alike. The meeting of three bones forms your elbow joint. The upper arm bone (the humerus) meets the two forearm bones (the radius and ulna) to form your elbow joint. Ligaments keep these bones in the correct positions. Dislocations to the elbow can be complete or partial. A complete dislocation is where the bones lose contact with one another, whereas a partial dislocation means the bones have lost some contact with one another. The elbow dislocation can be further classified as complex or simple. Complex dislocations mean there are fractures present in addition to soft tissue damage. Simple dislocations mean there is only soft tissue damage. Simple dislocations are less likely to need surgery than complex elbow dislocations.

What Causes Elbow Dislocation?

Trauma to the elbow joint is a common cause of elbow dislocations. Trauma may include a sporting injury, a car accident, or a fall. Elbow dislocations often require a great deal of force to occur. Sometimes, after repetitive activity or overuse, the soft structures of the elbow can loosen and weaken, leaving you more prone to dislocation and instability in the elbow.

Elbow Dislocation Risk Factors

Risk factors for elbow dislocations include weak or loose elbow ligaments as a result of repetitive activities or overuse of the joint, and participating in sports or activities that may cause falls or impact injuries that require you to brace yourself with an outstretched arm.

Symptoms of Elbow Dislocation

Elbow dislocations may present with pain, swelling, bruising of the surrounding skin, a visible deformity of the bone, weakness in the elbow, and inability to move the joint. 

How is Elbow Dislocation Diagnosed?

Your doctor will perform a physical examination, taking care to note if there are any open injuries on the surface of the skin, if there is any nerve damage or blood vessel damage, and if there are any other injuries present aside from the dislocation (such as in the wrist or shoulder). Afterward, your doctor will likely order imaging tests. You may need several X-rays to give different views of the injury and provide a picture of whether there are fractures present. You may also require a CT scan if the X-ray fails to provide a complete picture. An MRI to assess soft tissue injury may also be done, but is less common.

Treatment for Elbow Dislocation

Elbow Dislocation may be treated surgically or non-surgically. 

Nonsurgical Treatment for Elbow Dislocation

In most cases, elbow dislocation is treated non-surgically. It is critical that you seek out a doctor right away if you suspect you have dislocated your elbow. The sooner the doctor can manipulate or “reduce” the bones back into their proper position, the less likely it is that you will suffer long-term issues with your nerves. Putting the bones into place will also lessen your pain and swelling. You may be given pain medication or injections at the site of the joint or even muscle relaxers to help with the initial recovery. It is important to keep moving the joint soon after the reduction procedure because it can stiffen if left immobilized for too long. However, between these periods of therapy or motion, you will be provided a splint or sling to hold your arm in place to prevent any straining or additional dislocations. 

Surgical Treatment for Elbow Dislocation

If your doctor cannot reduce the bones into their proper position, or if the bones are unstable and do not remain in their proper position throughout your recovery, surgery will likely be necessary. You may also require surgery if you have significant tears to soft-tissue structures or damage to nerves or blood vessels. Often, complex elbow dislocations (dislocations that involve soft tissue injury AND fractures) will require surgery to repair. 

Elbow Dislocation Recovery Time

Recovery from elbow dislocation surgery will require a sling for four to six weeks. When your doctor deems you able to begin, you will embark upon a physical therapy regimen to restore movement and function to the joint. If you do not require surgery, the elbow may be kept in a sling for 1-3 weeks, after which you will perform motion exercises. Either recovery, no matter how smoothly it goes, may leave you with some limited range of motion as compared with your other, uninjured elbow. 

How Can I Prevent Elbow Dislocation?

Prevention of elbow injuries may not be possible in all cases, but using caution in appropriate situations may help you avoid such an injury. For example, taking care on unstable or slippery stairs or surfaces, and avoiding overtraining in sports can both help prevent an elbow dislocation.

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