Common Questions About Elbow Fractures
What is the elbow?
Elbows are basically hinge-type joints, like the hinge on a door.
The three bones that make up the elbow are the humerus, radius, and ulna. The humerus is the bone of the upper arm – it flares out just before it connects with the elbow joint.
The radius and ulna are smaller and sit side-by-side in the elbow joint.
Strong ligaments hold the bones together (ligaments connect bones to other bones).
Muscles and tendons surround the elbow joint and help it move. The elbow is capable of two main types of movement: bending and straightening and rotation (when you turn palm up and palm down).
Either one of these motions may be stiff or painful after a bad elbow injury.
How do elbow fractures happen?
Elbows break most commonly after a fall onto a stretched-out hand, when someone tries to break their fall. You can also break your elbow if you land directly on it, or by twisting it severely. Other injuries like sprains, strains, or dislocations can happen at the same time.
How do I know my elbow is fractured?
Sometimes it’s hard to tell if you have a bruise, a sprain, or a complete break (a fracture). Pain, bruising, and swelling around an elbow that’s hard to bend or twist can be signs of a broken elbow.
You may hear or feel a pop or crack in the elbow during the injury.
Other signs of serious injury include a crooked appearance to the elbow or arm, bleeding cuts in the skin around the elbow, or numbness/tingling in the hand after the injury that doesn’t improve.
How do elbow surgeons diagnose elbow fractures?
X-rays will show most elbow fractures. These are taken in the ER or in the elbow surgeon’s office.
Sometimes it’s necessary to get a CT scan of the elbow, and your surgeon or ER doctor might recommend this. A CT scan is a type of x-ray that looks at the elbow bones in very fine detail – much more closely than with plain x-ray.
Surgeons often get CT scans of elbows if they’re trying to figure out exactly how severe the break is, or to plan for surgery. For example, a CT will show a surgeon if the broken elbow is shattered in hundreds of pieces, or broken into a few main fragments – this will be good to know before starting surgery.
What does treatment for elbow fractures involve?
Elbow fractures are treated either with surgery or without surgery. Usually the right answer depends on how badly the elbow is broken.
- Is the break in the joint?
- Does the break involve multiple bones?
- Is the fracture solid or are there loose fragments in the elbow?
- Is a nerve or blood vessel damaged?
All these questions need to be answered during the decision process.
When splints, casts, or braces are used
If the pieces are stable and not likely to move out of place, a splint or cast may let them heal. Sometimes it’s even safe to move the elbow during the healing process to prevent stiffness.
When surgery is used
If the bones are broken in multiple places or if the break involves the joint, or the pieces are moved out of place a lot, surgery is usually the right answer.
Surgery is used to put the pieces back in the right alignment, solid enough (using metal hardware like screws and pins) to let you move the elbow after surgery (in therapy). If the bone comes through the skin, surgery is needed right away to wash out the cut and prevent infection.
How long is the recovery from an elbow fracture?
Any fracture takes about six weeks to heal. This is true whether you have surgery or just a splint.
Some factors make healing slow down, like smoking or bad circulation.
If the pieces of broken bone can be stabilized in surgery or are stable on their own, early motion and therapy can prevent stiffness, but therapy is usually required on top of the bone healing time.
Therefore count on about three months of total healing and rehabilitation time to recover from an elbow fracture.
Some patients heal faster, some slower. The most common complication after an elbow fracture (with or without surgery) is stiffness.