The elbow can be vulnerable to injury. A fracture can result from a fall onto an outstretched arm, a twisting injury to the arm, or from direct trauma. An elbow fracture can cause severe pain and make movement extremely difficult. Treatment for an elbow fracture can vary and depends on the severity and exact location of the injury.
The Elbow Joint
The elbow is a complicated joint made up of three bones, the humerus (upper arm bone) and the ulna and radius (the bones in the forearm). The olecranon is part of the ulna and is the tip of the elbow, and the radial head is the end of the radius where it meets the elbow. The elbow is also made up of ligaments, muscles, and tendons, allowing the bones to move both forwards and backwards as well as rotate in a twisting motion.
Symptoms of A Fracture
The following symptoms can indicate a fracture:
- Sudden, intense pain (especially with movement)
- Limited range of movement (difficulty bending/straightening the elbow, inability to turn the forearm)
- Tender to the touch
- Visible deformity
- Numbness/tingling/weakness in the arm, wrist, and hand
- Joint instability
If you injure your elbow or experience any of these symptoms, you should seek prompt medical treatment from an orthopedist, as delaying treatment can lead to further damage.
Diagnosing A Fracture
Diagnostic imaging, such as an X-ray or CT scan, is required to confirm if a fracture is present and the exact location of it. It is also used to identify the severity of the damage, whether any bones are misaligned or displaced (when there is a gap between the bones), and to assess whether there are any bone fragments present.
There are different types of elbow fractures, which include:
- Radial head and neck fractures (often occur as a result of a dislocated elbow, or falling on to an outstretched arm).
- Olecranon fractures (from falling directly on the elbow).
- Distal humerus fracture (more common in children and the elderly).
Treatment for Fractures
Treatment largely depends on the severity of the fracture and whether any of the bones have moved during the break, are misaligned, or have pierced the skin. The main goal of treatment is to align the fractured bones to allow new bone formation, correct healing, and to repair any other trauma.
Simple fractures are those that have not pierced the skin, are not misaligned, and are at low risk of moving out of place. They are typically treated with non-surgical methods. This includes immobilization, such as wearing a cast, splint, or sling until the bone heals, and rest, followed by a gentle and gradual increase in motion. Pain relief and anti-inflammatory medication may also help to alleviate symptoms.
For more serious and complex fractures, such as when the bone is out of place or unstable, surgery is often required to realign or stabilize the bones to ensure they heal correctly. Surgical hardware, including pins, metal plates, rods, and screws, may be required to hold the fractured bones together during the healing process.
Surgery may be necessary to remove any loose bone fragments and to repair any soft tissue damage. If any bones have been crushed or severely damaged, a bone graft may be required to fill in the gaps. If damage is severe, the surgeon may need to remove part of the bone, such as the radial head, and replace it with an artificial one to improve function and mobility.
After surgery, once bones have been properly aligned, a splint or cast will be applied. A splint may be used for the first few days to accommodate swelling, with a cast then applied when the swelling has reduced.
Even simple fractures can result in some loss of elbow extension. Elbow stiffness is also much more common in adult patients. Rehabilitation, including physical therapy and occupational therapy, is often recommended to help restore and maximize range of motion, reduce and avoid stiffness in the joint, and help you perform activities of daily living, such as getting dressed.
Rehabilitation is also recommended following fracture surgery to speed up recovery, increase strength and mobility, and reduce risk of future injuries. Physical therapy for an elbow fracture may include a number of modalities, including therapeutic exercises, manual therapies such as massage and joint mobilization, ice and heat therapies, ultrasound, and electrical stimulation.
Fracture Care in San Antonio, Texas
If you are experiencing elbow pain, speak to the experienced physicians at the Center for Orthopaedic Surgery and Sports Medicine. We provide prompt diagnosis and treatment for a variety of orthopedic conditions and injuries, including fractures, and are dedicated to providing you with the best patient-centered care available.
For more information or to schedule an appointment, call us at (210) 692-7400. Alternatively, you can fill out our online form.