The elbow is the joint in the center of each arm which is made up of three bones: the ulna (forearm bone on the pinky side), radius (forearm bone on the thumb side), and humerus (upper arm bone). An elbow fracture is a break in the pointy segment or “tip” of the elbow. Elbow fractures happen quite often, especially in children, and can be extremely painful and make elbow motion difficult.
Types of Elbow Fractures
The three main types of elbow fractures include an olecranon fracture, radial head fracture, and a distal humerus fracture, each having their own distinct characteristics and symptoms.
The olecranon is an extension of the ulna, the forearm bone located on the pinky side of the arm. The olecranon is not protected by any muscles or ligaments, so it is particularly vulnerable to fracture if the elbow makes direct contact with a hard surface. Olecranon fractures commonly occur as a result of a sharp, sudden contraction of the tricep muscle during a fall.
Radial Head Fracture
The radial head is the part of the radius bone that connects with the humerus in the elbow joint. A radial head fracture may occur when you put your hand out to break a fall. The force of impact pushes the radial head into the bottom of the humerus with such force that it fractures. Dislocating your elbow, another type of elbow injury, can put stress on the radial head and lead to a fracture.
Distal Humerus Fracture
The distal humerus is the rounded bottom part of the bone connecting the shoulder to the elbow. It rotates against the radial head and the ulna, forming the upper part of the joint. Although distal humerus fractures are relatively uncommon, they can happen as a result of a hard blow to the elbow, falling onto a bent elbow, or putting your hand out to break a fall while the elbow is extended straight.
Causes of Elbow Fractures
There are a number of ways you can fracture your elbow, including a variety of injuries and activities. Kids do a lot of physical things that can cause fractures like riding bikes, skateboards, scooters, running and jumping outside, and using playground equipment. Generally, a break in this part of the arm is caused by:
- Falling directly on the elbow
- Receiving a direct blow to the elbow from something hard
- Falling on an outstretched arm
Symptoms of Elbow Fractures
An elbow fracture usually causes sudden, intense pain and can prevent you from moving your elbow. Other common signs and symptoms may include:
- Swelling over the “tip” or back of the elbow
- Bruising around the elbow that may that extends up the arm to the shoulder or down the forearm towards the wrist
- Tenderness to the touch, redness, and warmth around the elbow
- Numbness in one or more fingers
- Pain with movement of the elbow or with rotation of the forearm
- A feeling of instability in the joint, as if your elbow is going to “pop out.”
Diagnosing an Elbow Fracture
Elbow fractures can be diagnosed with a physical examination and imaging tests such as an X-ray. Your doctor will also take a full medical history to understand if you’ve had previous elbow injuries or have a condition that puts you at a higher risk for developing an elbow fracture. Your doctor will evaluate your arm for any swelling, bruising, or apparent breaks. Imaging tests help to identify the location and severity of the fracture.
Treatment for Elbow Fractures
The majority of elbow fractures do not require surgery. Treatment depends on whether you have a non-displaced or displaced fracture.
Most elbow fractures, if they are considered non-displaced, can be treated using conservative methods including:
- A splint to hold the blow in place and a sling to immobilize the arm while the bone heals
- Anti-inflammatory medications or over-the-counter medications to relieve pain
- Applying ice to reduce pain and decrease swelling
- Physical therapy and range-of-motion exercises to strengthen the elbow
If you’ve suffered a displaced or non-union fracture, your doctor will likely recommend surgery to repair it. The goal of surgery is to put the pieces back into alignment so they heal correctly. In many cases, your surgeon will use specialized hardware such as pins, screws, or plates to hold the bones in place. Two of the most common surgical procedures for elbow fractures are closed reduction percutaneous pinning and open reduction internal fixation. You should discuss the various methods of surgery with your elbow surgeon in order to achieve the best possible functional outcome.
Elbow Fracture Recovery Time
Your recovery time will be dependent on the severity of your elbow fracture. Patients can expect to wear a splint or cast for anywhere from three to six weeks after surgery. You will need to get plenty of rest and keep your elbow stabilized and elevated during the healing process. Non-prescription medications can help to alleviate pain, which is crucial for a smooth and effective recovery. With the help of physical therapy and other rehabilitation techniques, most patients are able to return to normal activities and restore full functionality and range of motion. Your orthopedic surgeon will monitor your progress and be able to give you a better understanding of your recovery time.
Comprehensive Elbow Care in Wake County
The Raleigh Orthopaedic elbow surgeons work closely with our on-site Certified Hand Therapists to treat a wide range of elbow injuries and conditions, including elbow fractures. When you trust the experts at Raleigh Orthopaedic to be your official orthopedic provider, you will be met with the highest quality care in Wake County. Contact us today to schedule an appointment at one of our six elbow clinics.