The elbow is one of the most complicated joints. It is formed by the humerus, radius, and ulna bones. Elbow fractures can result from falls, direct blows, or twisting injury, and might be accompanied by ligament injuries as well, as is the case with dislocations.
Pain, swelling, bruising, and stiffness can be associated with a fracture. Following a thorough physical examination, your physician will use X-rays to identify any bony injuries. A CT scan might be used to show more detail about complicated fracture patterns.
Treatment of elbow fractures depends upon the age of the patient and the characteristics of the breaks. Children, for example, usually do not develop stiffness of the elbow quickly, and therefore the elbow can be casted for a short period of time. However, adult elbows are prone to stiffness, so treatment is aimed at stablizing the fracture and getting the elbow moving right away.
Radial head and neck fractures usually occur following a fall onto an outstretched arm. Non-displaced fractures generally are treated with early motion. Displaced fractures or those which have a fragment that blocks motion might need to be fixed surgically, or even replaced with a metal implant.
Olecranon fractures, or fractures of the ulna (what most people think of as the “elbow bone”), can be treated with splinting and early motion if they are stable and not displaced. The triceps muscle that extends the elbow attaches to this bone, so that is a major consideration. Displaced or unstable fractures are fixed surgically with pins and wires or plates and screws.
Fractures of the distal humerus are common in children and in elderly patients; although many pediatric “supracondylar” (above the condyle) humerus fractures can be treated in a cast, some pediatric and most adult fractures here are surgical unless they are not displaced and stable.
Listen to Dr. Rohde’s June 18, 2009 interview about Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s elbow fracture with EmpowHer.com’s Todd Hartley here.