Elbow Fracture In Adults

What is an elbow fracture?

An elbow fracture is a break in one or more of the bones that form your elbow joint. Your elbow joint is made up of 3 bones: the humerus, radius, and ulna.

What causes an elbow fracture?

An elbow fracture is often caused by an injury. Car and sports accidents are common causes of elbow fractures. A fall onto an outstretched hand with a bent elbow may also cause an elbow fracture. Osteoporosis (brittle bones) can also increase your risk for an elbow fracture.

What are the types of elbow fracture?

  • Nondisplaced: A fracture is nondisplaced when the bone cracks or breaks but stays in place.

  • Displaced: A fracture is displaced when the 2 ends of the broken bone are separated.

  • Comminuted: A fracture is comminuted when the bone cracks or breaks into many pieces.

  • Open fracture: An open fracture occurs when the broken bone breaks through your skin.

What are the signs and symptoms of an elbow fracture?

  • Pain and tenderness

  • Swelling and bruising

  • Trouble moving your arm or not being able to move your arm at all

  • Weakness or numbness in your elbow, arm, or hand

  • Deformity (your arm is shaped differently than normal)

How is an elbow fracture diagnosed?

Your caregiver will check the skin over your injured elbow and arm for any skin breaks. He may touch areas of your arm to see if you have decreased feeling. He may also check for any problems with your arm movements. Your caregiver may put a shot of numbing medicine into your injured elbow joint before he checks your movement. You may need any of the following:

  • X-rays: These pictures of your elbow are used to check for broken bones.

  • CT scan: This test is also called a CT scan. An x-ray machine uses a computer to take pictures of your elbow joint and arm. The pictures may show where the bone is broken. You may be given a dye before the pictures are taken to help caregivers see the pictures better. Tell the caregiver if you have ever had an allergic reaction to contrast dye.

  • MRI: This scan uses powerful magnets and a computer to take pictures of your elbow joint and arm. An MRI may show where the bone is broken and if other tissues are involved. You may be given dye to help the pictures show up better. Tell the caregiver if you have ever had an allergic reaction to contrast dye. Do not enter the MRI room with anything metal. Metal can cause serious injury. Tell the caregiver if you have any metal in or on your body.

How is an elbow fracture treated?

You may need any of the following:

  • Devices: A brace, cast, sling, or splint may be put on your elbow to limit your arm movement. These devices hold the broken bones in place while they heal. They may help decrease pain and prevent more damage to your broken bones.

  • Medicines:

    • NSAIDs: These medicines decrease swelling and pain. NSAIDs are available without a doctor's order. Ask your caregiver which medicine is right for you. Ask how much to take and when to take it. Take as directed. NSAIDs can cause stomach bleeding and kidney problems if not taken correctly.

    • Pain medicine: You may be given a prescription medicine to decrease pain. Do not wait until the pain is severe before you take your medicine.

    • Antibiotics: This medicine helps fight or prevent an infection caused by bacteria. Take them as directed.

    • Tetanus shot: You may need a tetanus shot if you have breaks in your skin from your injury. A tetanus shot is medicine to prevent you from getting tetanus. Tetanus is a serious infection that can happen after any break in your skin. The shot is normally given into your arm. You should have a tetanus shot if you have not had one in the past 5 to 10 years. Your arm may get red, swollen, and sore after this shot.

  • Electrical stimulation: Electric currents are directed into your injured elbow. The currents increase the blood flow to your elbow to help with healing. This treatment may be used along with other treatments for your elbow fracture.

  • Ultrasound therapy: Ultrasound treatments use sound waves directed into your elbow. The sound waves help the bones heal. You may need this treatment along with other treatments.

  • Surgery: If you have an open fracture, you may need debridement before your surgery. Debridement is when damaged and infected tissue is removed and the wound is cleaned. Debridement is done to help prevent infection and improve healing.

    • Arthroplasty: This surgery is done to remove the damaged part of your elbow and replace it with an implant. An implant is a metal, ceramic, or plastic device that functions like your elbow joint. Your whole elbow joint or only a part of it may be replaced.

    • Fragment excision: The broken fragments (pieces) of bone are removed from your elbow during this surgery.

    • Open reduction and internal fixation: An incision will be made in your arm. Your broken bones will be straightened. Wires, screws, metal plates, or pins may be used to hold your broken bones together. This surgery will allow your broken bones to grow back together.

    • Bone graft: A bone graft replaces lost bone from your fracture. A bone graft is a piece of bone taken from another area of your body. The bone graft may also be from a donor (another person). The graft is put into spaces between or around the broken bones in your elbow. This surgery may help your bones heal and keep their strength.

What can I do to help my elbow fracture heal?

  • Elevate your elbow: Raise your elbow above the level of your heart as often as you can. This will help decrease swelling and pain. Prop your elbow on pillows or blankets to keep it elevated comfortably. While your elbow is elevated, wiggle your fingers and open and close them to prevent hand stiffness.

  • Ice: Ice helps decrease swelling and pain. Ice may also help prevent tissue damage. Use an ice pack or put crushed ice in a plastic bag. Cover it with a towel and place it on your elbow for 15 to 20 minutes every hour as directed.

  • Physical therapy: A physical therapist can teach you exercises to help improve movement and strength and to decrease pain.

What are the risks of an elbow fracture?

  • You may get a blood clot in your arm or leg. The clot may travel to your heart or brain and cause life-threatening problems, such as a heart attack or stroke. Surgery may damage the nerves, tissues, and blood vessels in your arm. After surgery, you may have tightness, pain, numbness, or weakness in your elbow and arm. You may get an infection. You may get arthritis (joint swelling) in your elbow and this may cause it not to work as well as it did before your injury. Screws, nails, or pins used during your surgery may come loose, and you may need another surgery.

  • Without treatment, your broken elbow may not heal. If your fracture heals on its own, your arm may be deformed. You may not be able to move your elbow and arm as well as you did before your injury. You may have pain, weakness, or numbness in your elbow, arm, or hand. If you have open skin areas, you may get an infection. A severe infection may lead to a bone infection, which can be life-threatening.

When should I contact my caregiver?

Contact your caregiver if:

  • You have a fever.

  • The pain gets worse, even after you rest and take your pain medicine.

  • You have new or worse trouble moving your arm.

  • You have new sores around the area of your brace or splint.

  • Your brace or splint becomes damaged.

  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.

When should I seek immediate care?

Seek care immediately or call 911 if:

  • Your elbow, arm, or fingers are numb.

  • Your skin is swollen, cold, or pale.

  • You have open skin areas on your elbow and arm that will not stop bleeding.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your caregivers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

© 2014 Truven Health Analytics Inc. Information is for End User's use only and may not be sold, redistributed or otherwise used for commercial purposes. All illustrations and images included in CareNotes® are the copyrighted property of A.D.A.M., Inc. or Truven Health Analytics.

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