The elbow is a hinge joint comprised of 3 bones – humerus, radius and ulna. Ligaments hold the bones together to provide stability to the joint. Muscles and tendons originate and insert onto the bones around the elbow to provide force to move the bones and perform activities.
How do elbow fractures happen?
Elbow fractures may result from falling onto an outstretched arm, a direct impact to the elbow, or a twisting injury. Sprains, strains, or dislocations may occur at the same time as a fracture.
What are the signs and symptoms?
Pain, swelling, bruising, and stiffness in and around the elbow suggest a possible fracture. A snap or pop at the time of injury may be felt or heard. Skin openings may reflect communication between the bone and the outside environment. Visible deformity would indicate displacement of the bones or a dislocation of the elbow joint. It is always important to check for possible nerve and/or artery damage.
How are elbow fractures diagnosed?
X-rays are used to confirm if a fracture is present and if the bones are displaced. Sometimes a CT scan might be necessary to get further detail, especially of the joint surface.
How are they treated?
Stiffness is a major concern after any elbow fracture. Treatment is therefore focused on maximizing early motion. Conservative treatment (sling, cast) is usually used when the bones are at low risk of moving out of place, or when the position of the bones is acceptable. Age is also an important factor when treating elbow fractures. Casts are used frequently in children, as their risk of developing stiffness is small; however, in an adult, elbow stiffness is much more likely.
Fractures that are displaced or unstable are more likely to need surgery to realign and stabilize the fragments, or sometimes to remove bone fragments, and ideally allow for early motion. Whenever a fracture is open (skin broken over the fracture), urgent surgery is needed to clean out the tract and bone so as to minimize the risk of a deep infection.
Therapy is often utilized to maximize motion. This might include exercises, scar massage, modalities such as ultrasound, heat, ice, etc., and splints that stretch the joint (static progressive or dynamic splints).
Source: (c) 2007 American Society for Surgery of the Hand / Developed by the ASSH Public Education Committee - http://www.assh.org/Public/HandConditions/Pages/ElbowFractures.aspx