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What Is a Supracondylar Fracture?

Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on April 24, 2021

A supracondylar fracture is a type of elbow fracture common in young children. The location and cause of the fracture determine the type. A supracondylar fracture is a fracture in the upper arm just above the elbow joint. It is common but it can become dangerous if not treated properly.

The Elbow

The elbow is a joint that bends like a hinge and supports the rotation of your forearm. Your elbow is primarily made up of three bones. These are the ulna, radius, and humerus. All the bones of your elbow are held together by ligaments, tendons, and muscles.

There are a variety of elbow fractures. Some are large. A supracondylar fracture in your humerus is one of these. Others are smaller. One example is an epicondylar fracture that damages only the tip of your elbow. Each type of fracture can cause severe damage to muscles, tendons, and nerves if not treated properly.

Supracondylar fracture. This type of fracture occurs in the humerus. This is the thick bone connecting your elbow to your shoulder. The fracture occurs near the elbow just above the joint.

Signs of a Fracture

Most elbow fractures are easy to identify and cause similar symptoms. The common symptoms of an elbow fracture are:

  • Severe pain in the elbow, forearm, or both
  • Swelling in your elbow
  • Numbness in your hand
  • Loss of elbow function (you can’t straighten your arm)
  • Loss of color and warmth in your fingers or hand
  • Noticeable deformity around the elbow or arm

Causes

Breaking a bone can happen in almost any scenario. There are three common situations in which an elbow fracture occurs.

Your elbow hits something. You might fall and land directly onto your elbow. You could also inadvertently bash your elbow on something solid. A direct impact can lead to a fracture.

Something hits your elbow. An object in the world around you can hit your elbow with enough force to fracture it. This can be because of a car accident or the impact of a football helmet during a game.

Impacting your extended arm. When your arm is fully extended, the muscles and tendons are flexed and tight. Landing on your arm while it’s extended can cause pieces of bone to be pulled away from each other.

Diagnosis

Your doctor will perform a physical exam to determine the severity of the fracture:

  • They’ll check for lacerations from bone fragments that have broken through the skin.
  • They’ll examine the elbow for areas of tenderness around the elbow.
  • They’ll check the pulse at your wrist to check blood flow to your hand and fingers.
  • They’ll ensure you can move your wrist and fingers.

Your doctor will likely perform x-rays to further diagnose the fracture.

Treatment

A supracondylar fracture is typically treated by putting a splint or cast around your elbow and then using a sling to keep it in position. Other treatments include ice and medications to relieve pain and swelling.

Surgical or nonsurgical. A bone will heal naturally after a few weeks without surgery if your bone fragments are not out of place. You will require surgery if the bone is displaced when fractured. The surgeon will put the bone back into place and may use thin pins placed in the ends of the bone to hold it in place while it heals.

Continued

Recovery. The fracture will hurt for a few days or weeks. Ice, elevation, and over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers are typically enough to manage the pain. For severe pain, your doctor may recommend a prescription-strength medication.

A successful recovery from a fracture requires rehabilitation. Your doctor will prescribe certain exercises to do to help regain your range of motion. This will help reduce stiffness in your arm and elbow and strengthen the elbow’s muscles. It also requires rest and not putting your recovery at risk by using your arm for physical activities.

Complications

Vascular and nerve damage. Severe fractures injure important arteries and nerves in the arm. The brachial artery and nerves that control hand movement run alongside your humerus. A supracondylar fracture can put you at risk for vascular and nerve damage.

Elbow stiffness. Practicing rehabilitation exercises are crucial to prevent elbow stiffness. It can cause you to not have the same degree of movement that you had before the fracture. You may have trouble extending your elbow all the way or moving your arm in certain directions.

Continued

Arthritis. Your elbow can become inflamed after a fracture. This may lead to stiffness and pain. This type of complication typically occurs in adults instead of children.

Malunion. Malunion occurs when the bone fragments fuse back together incorrectly. This can lead to visible bumps or dents under your skin. It can lead to pain, discomfort, joint degeneration, arthritis, or joint instability. You may need surgery to correct it if the malunion interferes with the function of your arm, elbow, or surrounding areas.

WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

HSS: “Elbow Fractures in Children: An Overview.”

Michigan Surgery Specialists, P.C.: “What to Expect with an Elbow Fracture.”

Nationwide Children’s: “Supracondylar Humerus Fracture.”

NHS: “LIMB DEFORMITY.”

OrthoInfo: “Elbow (Olecranon) Fractures.”

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