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What Is Elbow Replacement Surgery?

If a disease such as rheumatoid arthritis or an injury has harmed your elbow, your doctor may recommend surgery to replace the joint, so you have less pain and can move better.

During elbow replacement, a surgeon replaces your elbow with an artificial joint made from two implants that attach to the bones in your arm. A metal and plastic hinge joins the implants together.

The procedure is similar to hip and knee replacements.

You want a surgeon who has a lot of experience. Ask your rheumatologist or other doctor for referrals. You may also want to check with the professional association of American Shoulder and Elbow Surgeons.

What Are the Risks?

The most common complications are:

  • Infection
  • Injury to nerves and blood vessels
  • Allergic reaction to the artificial joint
  • Broken bone
  • Stiffness or instability of the joint
  • Loosening or wearing of the artificial parts
  • Weakness or failure in the tendons of your arm
  • Pain

There are risks because of the anesthesia, such as an allergic reaction to those medicines and breathing problems. As with any surgery, bleeding and blood clots are possible, too.

What to Do Before the Operation

Your doctor will ask you about your medical history. Tell them about any conditions you have, including allergies.

Also let your doctor know if you drink alcohol and what medicines you take. She also needs to know about any vitamins, supplements, or herbal products you use.

If you smoke, you should stop before your surgery.

What to Expect

Elbow replacement surgery takes about 2 hours. You'll get anesthesia, so you won’t be “awake” for it. You’ll need to stay in the hospital for up to 4 days.

After the operation, you’ll have stitches and a bandage on your new elbow. You may also need to keep your arm in a splint to keep it stable while it heals.

Because elbow replacement involves cutting skin, tendons, and bone, you'll need strong pain medications after surgery. You'll also take pain meds for 1 to 2 weeks after you go home from the hospital.

It will take time to get used to your new elbow. For instance, you won't be able to lift anything heavier than a cup of coffee for 6 weeks after surgery. It’s a good idea to line up help ahead of time.

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