Dislocated Elbow

What is a dislocated elbow?

When an elbow is dislocated, the bones that form the elbow joint are displaced from their normal position. The bones that make up the elbow are the upper arm bone (humerus) and the forearm bones (ulna and radius).

What is the cause?

This is an injury that usually occurs in a fall, when your arm is outstretched and your hand is extended to break your fall. When your elbow is dislocated, you may also break 1 or more bones in your elbow (usually the parts of the ulna or radius that make up the elbow joint).

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms may include:

  • Swelling
  • Pain
  • Bruising
  • Deformed appearance of the elbow
  • Limited movement or inability to move the elbow

How is it diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will review your symptoms, examine you, and take X-rays. He or she will test your ability to move your hand. Your provider will check for damage to your blood vessels and nerves by taking your pulse and testing sensation in the fingers and hand.

How is it treated?

Your healthcare provider will put the bones back in their natural position. You may need to have a local or general anesthetic when this is done. Your provider will gently pull apart the injured parts and reposition them in the proper place. A splint or cast with a sling will hold the bones in their natural position for 1 week or longer. A splint is a hard bandage that prevents a joint from moving while it heals. You will use a sling to keep your arm at your side while it is in the splint. When the splint is removed, you will need to do range-of-motion exercises to prevent stiffness.

More severe injuries may need surgery.

Your provider will probably prescribe a pain reliever.

Elbow dislocations are serious injuries that take at least 4 to 6 weeks to heal.

How can I take care of myself?

Follow the instructions your healthcare provider gives you. These instructions may include:

  • Keeping your elbow up on pillows whenever possible (to reduce swelling)
  • 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.
  • Taking a pain medicine, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen, as directed by your provider. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medicines (NSAIDs) 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.
  • Doing the recommended exercises.

Ask your provider:

  • How long it will take to recover
  • What activities you should avoid and when you can return to your normal activities
  • How to take care of yourself at home
  • What symptoms or problems you should watch for and what to do if you have them

Make sure you know when you should come back for a checkup.

How can I help prevent a dislocated elbow?

Many accidents cannot be easily prevented. Some things that might help are:

  • Try to avoid operating mechanical equipment when you are rushed or tired.
  • Be safety conscious when you participate in sports and activities.
  • Walk carefully on slippery surfaces, such as icy sidewalks.

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Published by RelayHealth.
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