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Elbow Fracture – Patient’s Guide to Elbow Fracture

An elbow fracture occurs when any of the bones that comprise the elbow is cracked or broken. Depending on the severity of injury, other elbow structures such as ligaments, muscles or tendons may be damaged, as well.

Elbow fracture is very painful. It requires special medical treatment which may include casting or splinting or surgery to correct the deformed bone.

Elbow Basics

Your elbow joint is composed of three bones: your upper arm bone (humerus), ulna and radius (forearm bones). Surrounding structures, such as arm and forearm muscles and their tendons, and ligaments contribute to the overall stability of your elbow while certain movements are allowed.

Movements permitted at the elbow include
  • Flexion – bending of the elbow
  • Extension – straightening of the elbow
  • Pronation – turning the forearm with your palm turned downward or backward
  • Supination – turning the forearm with the palm facing the ceiling or forward

Elbow Fracture Causes

Elbow fractures can be caused by a direct blow to the elbow in full contact sports. Others may have elbow fracture during a fall with the elbow hitting a hard surface. In some, it can be caused by an indirect injury, such as what happens when you fall on your outstretched hand (FOOSH injury).

Elbow Fracture Symptoms

The most common symptom of an elbow fracture is severe pain. The area of injury is tender and severe swelling occurs. Other symptoms may include
  • inability to straighten or bend the elbow because of pain
  • Bruising
  • Redness
  • Numbness in one or more fingers (nerve damage)
  • An unusual lump near your elbow accompanied by extreme pain
  • An obvious deformity

Go to your local hospital emergency department immediately if you suspect that you or someone has elbow fracture.

Diagnosis of Elbow Fracture

The only way to find out if you have elbow fracture is to have it looked at by a qualified healthcare provider. Your doctor will likely order an x-ray of your elbow to find the exact location of fracture and how much damage has occurred.

You will likely be seen by a specialist in bone and joint injuries, called an orthopedist or orthopedic doctor.

Elbow Fracture Treatments

The kind of treatment that you will receive will depend on the type and severity of your fracture. Your doctor may apply ice and give you pain medication. Your injured elbow may need to be immobilized with a splint or cast and a sling to keep your arm from moving and to allow healing. You should avoid lifting objects with your injured limb for a few weeks.

Surgery may be recommended if your bones are severely displaced or if you have an open fracture – bone pierces your skin.

Your doctor may refer you to a physical therapist to help you maintain your overall fitness. Once your cast has been removed, your therapist will help you regain your normal elbow range of motion.

Because your elbow has been immobile for some time, you will likely have elbow stiffness and muscle weakness. Your physical therapist will assess these problems and will create a comprehensive rehabilitation plan for you.

When can I return to my sport or activity?

People with elbow fracture heal differently. Some may return to their original activities within two to four months depending on the severity of their injury. Full healing of the bone may take a year or more.

It is important that you do not return to your strenuous sports activity until your elbow has fully healed. Only your doctor can determine when you can return to your original activities. It is recommended, however, that you go through a complete rehabilitation program with the help of your personal physical therapist.

See Also

Broken Bone. Medline Plus, National Library of Medicine (NLM), 2009
Elbow (Olecranon) Fractures. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS), 2007
Physical Therapist's Guide to Elbow Fracture. Move ForwardTM, n.d.
Elbow Fracture. Sports Science Orthopaedic Clinic (SSOC), n.d.

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