Elbow Fracture: Radial Head Fracture

What is a radial head fracture?

A radial head fracture is a crack or break in the elbow. The radial head is the end of the bone in the lower arm that leads from the elbow to the thumb side of the wrist.

What is the cause?

A radial head fracture usually happens from a fall on an outstretched arm. It can also happen from a direct hit to the elbow.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms may include:

  • pain on the thumb side of the elbow
  • swelling
  • trouble bending or straightening the elbow
  • trouble rotating your forearm (turning your palm up or down)

How is it diagnosed?

Your provider will ask about your symptoms and how the injury happened. He or she will examine you. You will have X-rays of the elbow.

How is it treated?

The treatment depends on the type of fracture.

  • If you have a simple fracture, you may need to wear a sling or a splint for a few days until there is no pain.
  • If you have a more severe fracture, you will have to keep your arm from moving for a longer time. You may need to have your arm in a cast, splint, or sling.
  • Sometimes surgery is needed.

How can I take care of myself?

Follow the full course of treatment your healthcare provider prescribes. Also:

  • To keep swelling down and help relieve pain, your healthcare provider may tell you to:
    • Put an ice pack, gel pack, or package of frozen vegetables wrapped in a cloth on the injured area every 3 to 4 hours for up to 20 minutes at a time for the first day or two after the injury.
    • Keep the injured arm up on pillows when you sit or lie down.
    • Take pain medicine, such as ibuprofen, as directed by your provider. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medicines (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen, may cause stomach bleeding and other problems. These risks increase with age. Read the label and take as directed. Unless recommended by your healthcare provider, do not take for more than 10 days.
  • If you have a cast, make sure the cast does not get wet. Cover the cast with plastic when you bathe. Avoid scratching the skin around the cast or poking things down the cast. This could cause an infection.

When your arm has been in a splint or cast, your joints may get stiff and your muscles get weaker. After the splint or cast is removed, your healthcare provider or physical therapist may recommend exercises to help your arm get stronger and more flexible. Follow your provider’s instructions for doing exercises.

Keep all appointments for provider visits or tests. Call your healthcare provider right away if:

  • You have more pain, redness, warmth, or swelling.
  • You have a fever higher than 101.5°F (38.6°C).
  • You have a loss of feeling in the injured area.
  • The injured area looks pale or blue or feels cold.

How long will the effects last?

A radial head fracture usually heals in 3 to 6 weeks.

When can I return to my normal activities?

Everyone recovers from an injury at a different rate. Return to your activities depends on how soon your elbow recovers, not by how many days or weeks it has been since your injury has occurred. The goal is to return to your normal activities as soon as is safely possible. If you return too soon you may worsen your injury.

You may return to your activities when your elbow has full range of motion without pain and has the same strength as the uninjured side.

How can I prevent a broken elbow?

Many elbow injuries are caused by falls or blows that cannot be prevented. Be careful when you walk or exercise. Knee pads, elbow pads, and a helmet can help prevent injuries during biking, rollerblading, or skateboarding.

Written by Pierre Rouzier, MD.
Published by RelayHealth.
© 2012 RelayHealth and/or its affiliates. All rights reserved.