Elbow Dislocation Overview
An elbow dislocation occurs when the bones of the forearm (the radius and ulna) move out of place compared with the bone of the upper arm (the humerus). The elbow joint, formed where these 3 bones meet, becomes dislocated, or out of joint.
Specific, serious injuries that may occur are fractures (breaking of the bones in the arm), injuries to the arteries in the arm (the vessels carrying blood to the hand), and injuries to the nerves that run through the elbow area, impairing movement and feeling in the arm and hand.
Elbow Dislocation Causes
The cause of most elbow dislocations is usually a fall, most commonly with the arm all the way out. However, any traumatic injury (such as a car crash) can result in an elbow dislocation.
Elbow Dislocation Symptoms
Severe pain in the elbow, swelling, and inability to bend your arm are all signs of an elbow dislocation.
In some cases, you may lose feeling in your hand or no longer have a pulse (can't feel your heartbeat in your wrist). Arteries and nerves run by your elbow, so it is possible you might have injured them during the dislocation.
When to Seek Medical Care
You should go to the doctor's office or hospital's emergency department immediately if you are unable to move your elbow, have severe pain, cannot feel your hand, or have no pulse in your wrist.
Exams and Tests
The doctor will begin with an examination.
- The doctor will make sure your nerves and arteries are unhurt by checking your pulse, making sure you can feel normally, move your fingers and wrist, and make sure that blood is flowing normally to your hand.
- Next, the doctor will get X-rays. Sometimes, breaks in the bone can look like dislocations, and some breaks happen when dislocations occur.
- If the doctor suspects an injury to your artery, further tests, such as an arteriogram (an X-ray of your artery) may be performed.
Elbow Dislocation Treatment Self-Care at Home
An elbow dislocation is a serious injury that needs medical care. At home, put ice on the elbow. This will help with the pain and will reduce some of the swelling. But the most important thing to do is to see a doctor.
It is best that this injury undergo evaluation by a doctor, but, at home, you can also check for a few signs that will show if the artery in the arm and the nerves are intact.
- To check for the artery, feel below your thumb at the base of your wrist. You should be able to feel your pulse. Press on the tips of your fingers. They should blanch (turn white) and then return to a normal pink color within 3 seconds. If either of these tests is abnormal, seek medical care immediately.
- Three nerves run by the elbow. Each nerve has portions that help with strength and feeling. First check for strength by bending your wrist up as if you were saying "Stop" (radial nerve function), then spread your fingers apart (ulnar nerve function), then try to touch your thumb to your little finger (median nerve function). If you have trouble with any of these tests, go to the doctor immediately.
- Check for feeling by touching all over your hand and arm. If any feeling of numbness results, see a doctor immediately.
The doctor will reduce (put back in place) your elbow by pulling down on your wrist and levering your elbow back into place. This is very painful, so powerful medications for pain may be given before reduction.
After your elbow is back in place, the doctor will get X-rays and then put you in a splint that will keep your elbow bent. The splint will make an "L" around the back of your elbow. It will be made of plaster or fiberglass. Its purpose is to prevent movement of your arm at the elbow. Usually, your arm will be placed in a sling to help you hold up your splint.
Next Steps Follow-up
After you are sent home from the doctor's office, you will be instructed to follow up with a bone doctor (orthopedist).
Wear your splint. Do not move your elbow. Elevate your elbow as much as possible, and ice it to reduce swelling.
Do not fall on your outstretched arm. Avoid situations that would make falls more common (such as walking at night or being around slippery floors).
Generally, this injury heals well. After watching closely for 3-5 days, the bone doctor will have you begin gentle movement exercises of your elbow. Usually, recovery occurs without any lasting effects.
Synonyms and Keywords
elbow dislocation, elbow joint