Dislocated Elbow

Dislocated Elbow

Elbow dislocations are the second most common dislocations in adults, behind the shoulder. The elbow is a very stable joint and so it requires a lot of force to dislocate it. Severe pain and obvious deformity are the common symptoms for this elbow injury, which is normally caused by a fall or direct impact. Read an explanation of elbow dislocations, treatments and how to rehabilitate after the injury.

What are the Symptoms?

  • Extreme pain
  • Obvious deformity (more so incomplete dislocations)
  • Bruising on the inside and outside of the elbow
  • Swelling

Dislocated elbow explained

A dislocated elbow occurs usually as a result of a fall, or a direct blow and often involves an associated fracture of the Radius, Humerus or Ulna. The most common mechanism involves falling onto an outstretched hand, with the arm away from the body and the elbow being forcibly flexed on contact. There is usually also a twisting movement. This results in a posterior dislocation which accounts for up to 90% of all elbow dislocations. In a posterior dislocation, the Ulna or the Radius (sometimes both!) moves backward.

When the elbow is dislocated posteriorly this can be either partial (also known as a subluxation) or complete. With a partial dislocation, the joint surfaces are separated by a small distance and usually reduce (return to their normal position) either instantly or with very little help. A complete dislocation occurs when the joint surfaces are considerably separated and can require a manual reduction (by a Doctor).

Dislocations usually involve damage to surrounding structures, most often the ligaments of the elbow joint, fractures to the Radius or Ulna or damage to the nerves or blood vessels which pass close to the elbow joint which may become trapped (pinched) by the moving bone.

Treatment

What can the athlete do?

  • Visit a Doctor or Hospital immediately
  • Apply ice or cold therapy to the elbow
  • Put the elbow in a sling to support it
  • DO NOT attempt to 'pop it back in' yourself! This can cause further damage

What can a professional do?

    • A Doctor will assess your arm for swelling, deformity, and movement
      The lower arm and hand should also be checked for warmth and colour. A cold, white or blue-tinged hand can indicate that a nerve or blood vessel has been trapped or damaged
  • An MRI or X-ray may be performed (sometimes before, sometimes after reduction)
    In a complete dislocation (or a partial dislocation which has not reduced itself) a reduction will be performed to return the elbow back to the correct position
  • This involves manipulating the elbow into a position which forces the bones back to their natural position.
  • The elbow is rested in a sling for between 1 and 3 weeks dependant on the extent of the damage
    A rehabilitation program should then be followed.

Rehabilitation

  • Following a period of immobilization, gentle mobility exercises should be commenced to increase the range of motion at the elbow joint.
  • Once the range of motion is close to normal, strengthening exercises for the muscles surrounding the elbow should begin.
  • Damage to surrounding ligaments should also be treated as described here
    Taping or a support can be used on a return to a sport
Related Articles
Elbow Avulsion Fracture

Avulsion fracture of the medial epicondyle is when the tendon comes away from the bone and can take part of the bone with it. This elbow injury is more common in children with symptoms similar to a...

Broken Elbow

An elbow fracture is a break in one of the bones which form the elbow joint. There are three bones which could be broken: the Humerus (upper arm bone), Ulna and Radius (two forearm bones). This...

Elbow Bursitis - Students Elbow

Elbow bursitis, also known as Students elbow or Olecranon bursitis, is the inflammation and swelling of the bursa which protects the end of the ulna bone at the back of the elbow. Repeatedly leaning on...

Medial Elbow Ligament Sprain

The medial collateral ligament (MCL) of the elbow is situated on the inner elbow and helps to provide stability to the joint. Damage to this ligament can occur from an impact injury or from...