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Elbow Fracture

Definition

An elbow fracture is a break in one or more of the bones that make up the elbow joint. The bones in the elbow joint are:

  • Humerus—the upper arm bone
  • Ulna—the larger of the forearm bones
  • Radius—the smaller bone in the forearm
The Elbow Joint
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Causes

Elbow fractures are caused by trauma to the elbow bones. Trauma can be caused by:

  • Falling on an outstretched arm
  • Falling directly on the elbow
  • Experiencing a direct blow to the elbow
  • Twisting the elbow beyond the normal range of motion

Risk Factors

This condition is more common in older adults.

Factors that may increase your risk of getting an elbow fracture include:

  • Osteoporosis
  • Certain diseases or conditions that result in bone or mineral loss, such as abnormal or absent menstrual cycles, or post- menopause
  • Certain diseases and conditions that weaken bones, such as tumors or cysts
  • Decreased muscle mass
  • Playing certain sports, such as football, hockey, wrestling, or gymnastics

Symptoms

Elbow fracture may cause:

  • Pain—often severe
  • Tenderness, swelling, and bruising around the elbow
  • Numbness in fingers, hand, or forearm
  • Decreased range of motion
  • A lump or visible deformity

Diagnosis

You will be asked about your symptoms, physical activity, and how the injury occurred. The area will be examined.

Imaging tests may include:

  • X-rays to look for a break in the elbow area
  • CT scan to look at the cartilage and tendons around the elbow

Treatment

Proper treatment can prevent long-term complications or problems with your elbow. Treatment will depend on how serious the fracture is, but may include:

Initial Care

A cast, splint, or sling may needed to protect, support, and keep your elbow in line while it heals.

Some fractures cause pieces of bone to separate. These pieces will need to be put back into their proper place. This may be done:

  • Without surgery—you will have anesthesia to decrease pain while the doctor moves the pieces back into place
  • With surgery—pins, wires, plates, screws, or stitches in the bone or tendons may be needed to reconnect the pieces and hold them in place

Children’s bones are still growing at an area of the bone called the growth plate. If the fracture affected the growth plate, your child may need to see a specialist. Injuries to the growth plate will need to be monitored to make sure the bone can continue to grow as expected.

Medication

Prescription or over-the-counter medications may be given to help reduce inflammation and pain.

Medications may include acetaminophen or ibuprofen.

Check with your doctor before taking nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications, such as ibuprofen or aspirin.

Note: Aspirin is not recommended for children with a current or recent viral infection. Check with your doctor before giving your child aspirin.

Rest and Recovery

Healing time varies by age and your overall health. Children and people in better overall health heal faster. In general, it takes up to 8-10 weeks for a fractured elbow to heal.

You will need to adjust your activities while your elbow heals, but complete rest is rarely required. Ice and elevating your arm at rest may also be advised to help with discomfort and swelling.

As you recover, you may be referred to physical therapy or rehabilitation to start range-of-motion and strengthening exercises. Do not return to activities or sports until your doctor gives you permission to do so.

Prevention

To help reduce your chance of getting an elbow fracture, take these steps:

  • Do not put yourself at risk for a trauma to the elbow.
  • Exercise regularly to maintain strength, agility, and to prevent falls.
  • Learn the proper technique and wear protective equipment for exercise and sporting activities.

To help reduce falling hazards at work and home, take these steps:

  • Clean spills and slippery areas right away.
  • Remove tripping hazards such as loose cords, rugs, and clutter.
  • Use non-slip mats in the bathtub and shower.
  • Install grab bars next to the toilet and in the shower or tub.
  • Put in handrails on both sides of stairways.
  • Walk only in well-lit rooms, stairs, and halls.
  • Keep flashlights on hand in case of a power outage.

Revision Information

  • American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons

    http://www.orthoinfo.org

  • American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine

    http://www.sportsmed.org

  • Canadian Orthopaedic Association

    http://www.coa-aco.org

  • Canadian Orthopaedic Foundation

    http://www.canorth.org

  • Distal radius fracture. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed. Updated September 15, 2014. Accessed September 23, 2014.

  • Elbow fractures in children. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons website. Available at: http://orthoinfo.aaos.org/topic.cfm?topic=A00037. Updated November 2011. Accessed September 23, 2014.

  • Elbow (olecranon) fractures. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons website. Available at: http://orthoinfo.aaos.org/topic.cfm?topic=A00503. Updated October 2007. Accessed September 23, 2014.

  • What are ways to prevent falls and related fractures? National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases website. Available at: http://www.niams.nih.gov/Health%5FInfo/Bone/Osteoporosis/Fracture/prevent%5Ffalls%5Fff.asp. Updated January 2011. Accessed September 23, 2014.


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