Diagnosis and Treatment of Elbow Fractures in Wake County

What is an Elbow Fracture?

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, a radial head fracture, and a distal humerus fracture, each having its own distinct characteristics and symptoms.    

Olecranon Fracture

​​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. Many common childhood activities, such as riding bikes, skateboards, and scooters, running and jumping outside, and using playground equipment can lead to an elbow fracture. 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 an Elbow Fracture

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 extend 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.”

How are Elbow Fractures Diagnosed?

Elbow fractures can be diagnosed with a physical examination and imaging tests such as an X-ray. Your doctor will also take your full medical history into account in order 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 will help to identify the location and severity of the fracture.

Treatment for Elbow Fractures at Raleigh Orthopaedic

The majority of elbow fractures do not require surgery. Treatment depends on whether you have a non-displaced or displaced fracture.

Nonsurgical Treatment

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Most elbow fractures, if they are considered non-displaced, can be treated using conservative methods including:

  • A splint to hold the elbow in place and a sling to immobilize the arm while the bone heals
  • Anti-inflammatory or over-the-counter medications to relieve pain 
  • Application of ice to reduce pain and decrease swelling 

Physical therapy and range-of-motion exercises to strengthen the elbow

Surgical Treatment Options

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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 of the elbow 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. Your elbow surgeon will walk you through your options to ensure that you receive the method of surgery best suited for your specific injury.

Elbow Fracture Recovery Time

Your recovery time will depend 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 eventually 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 idea of your recovery time.

Can I Prevent Elbow Fractures?

Because most elbow fractures occur due to accidents, they cannot always be prevented. There are, however, some precautionary measures that can be taken to reduce your risk. When playing sports, it is important to always wear the appropriate clothing or equipment to protect your elbow and the rest of your body from injury. Exercising can also reduce your risk of fracture by strengthening the elbow. For older individuals, it is important to take the right steps to prevent falls at home.

Comprehensive Elbow Care in Wake County

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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 as your official orthopedic providers, you will be met with the highest quality care in Wake County. Contact us today to schedule an appointment at one of our elbow clinics. You can also book your appointment online.