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Broken Elbow

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Outlook

The elbow is a very complex joint. Sometimes it is not very "forgiving" after it is injured. That is, the joint may develop certain problems. The way your elbow heals after it is broken depends on your age and medical condition at the time of your injury as well as the type of injury you have.

Certain types of elbow injuries are associated with particular types of problems as they heal. Children tend to heal better than adults. It is important to realize that many broken elbows heal without any problems. Your doctor will be able to advise you as your elbow heals.

Following are some of the more common problems with broken elbows:

  • Infection: Open injuries-when one of the elbow bones comes through the skin-have a higher infection risk. Bacteria can then enter the bone or joint and cause an infection.
    • Doctors try to prevent infection by using sterile techniques in the operating room.
    • They also attempt to wash away bacteria on or near open injuries.
    • Antibiotics can be used to treat infections as well.
  • Stiffness: Many elbow injuries result in elbow stiffness. The injured elbow may not flex, extend, or turn as much as it once did. This usually is a problem for adults rather than for children.
  • Nonunion: A broken bone that does not grow back together is called nonunion. This can happen with certain types of elbow fractures. Nonunion of a broken elbow can be treated by replacing the elbow with an artificial joint or by bone grafting. Bone grafting involves placing additional bone around the area of the nonunion.
  • Malunion: Malunion occurs when healing bones grow back together in an abnormal way. The bone may be bent or twisted. An operation may be required to fix this problem.
  • Abnormal bone growth: A broken bone repairs itself by forming new bone. As a broken elbow heals, this new bone may form in areas where bone does not usually grow.
  • Arthritis: Arthritis literally means joint inflammation. Most people think of arthritis as painful joints. After a severe injury, people can develop a type of arthritis that may make a joint painful and stiff. Sometimes this can become worse with cold weather or overuse.
  • Nerve damage: The 3 nerves that run through the elbow can be cut, kinked, or pulled in an elbow injury. The resulting nerve damage may be temporary or permanent. Swelling after an elbow injury can press on nerves causing damage.
  • Hardware problems: Doctors sometimes repair broken elbows with wires, pins, screws, plates, and other pieces of hardware. If any of this hardware moves, it may cause pain or unsightly bumps under your skin. If this occurs, the hardware may need to be removed.
  • Blood vessel damage: A large artery runs very near your elbow joint to supply blood to the forearm, wrist, and hand. Certain elbow injures may cut or kink this artery. Sometimes resetting the broken elbow will relieve pressure on the artery. Sometimes you may need an operation.

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