Elbow Dislocation 101

Elbow Dislocation

Elbow1”, by James Heil, MD, is licensed under CC BY 3.0

An elbow dislocation is the second most common dislocation after the shoulder. In children, it is the most common dislocation injury. 

The elbow joint is comprised of 3 bones, the humerus, the ulna, and the radius. Ligaments, tendons, and muscles support and hold these bones in place, as well as allow you to move your elbow.  

These bones may come under stress, from a fall or another big force, causing the bones to be thrown out of alignment, also known as a dislocation. This is often seen in high risk sports such as ice skating or gymnastics and sometimes contact sports. About 50% of elbow dislocation injuries occur from sports.  

How Do You Know if You’ve Dislocated Your Elbow? 

First and foremost, you’ll have an intense and severe pain in the elbow. You won’t be able to bend or move your affected arm. Numbness, tingling or a lack of a pulse may also be present in more severe elbow dislocations due to artery or nerve damage. 

Typically, the elbow appears twisted or deformed. This is because the bones have moved out of their alignment. If you suspect an elbow dislocation, visit your doctor immediately or seek out emergency medical care. If nerves or blood vessels have been disrupted or affected, immediate intervention is necessary. Permanent damage could result from this situation. In very serious cases, this permanent damage may consequently result in the need for an amputation. 

When you see your doctor or emergency care provider, they will first check your nerves and arteries. They will also conduct an X-ray to determine if there are fractures present and to view exactly what is going on. If your doctor does suspect nerve or arterial damage, further tests may be necessary.  

Treating a Dislocated Elbow 

Frequently, the doctor will put the bones back in place. This process is very painful. As such, they may provide you with pain medication prior to placing the bones back in place.  

If this isn’t possible, surgery may be required to repair other damage, such as ligaments or damaged nerves and blood vessels.  

Usually, you will wear a splint for 1-3 weeks after an elbow dislocation to allow time for the tissues to heal properly.  

During this time, you’ll undergo rehabilitation including physical therapy, massage therapy, and other recommended treatment methods. Exercises will slowly be introduced to allow for a full and effective recovery. And while your arm is healing, it’s crucial to prevent falling on your affected arm. Use caution when necessary. 

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