The elbow includes 3 bones, the humerus of the upper arm, and the radius and ulna of the lower arm. The bottom portion of the upper arm bone sits in a groove in the ulna. The end of the radius lies against the end of the upper arm bone and allows the forearm to rotate. A series of ligaments connects the bones and keeps them in place during movement.
An elbow dislocation occurs when the bones are pulled out of place. It often involves damage to the ligaments and sometimes damage to the bones. A dislocation will make certain movements impossible.
The Elbow Joint
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Elbow dislocation is caused by a sudden traumatic force on the elbow, such as a fall on an outstretched arm.
Factors that may increase your chance of elbow dislocation:
Elbow dislocation may cause:
Your doctor will ask about your symptoms, medical history, and what you were doing when your elbow was injured. Your elbow will be thoroughly examined to check for swelling and tenderness. Your doctor will may be able to make the diagnosis based on your symptoms.
An x-ray may be taken to look for evidence of the dislocation or fractures.
Other imaging tests may be done to see if there is any damage to nerves, blood vessels or ligaments:
Elbow dislocations are graded according to their severity:
The doctor can manipulate most elbows back into place. Medications to relieve pain and help you relax will be given before the elbow is moved. Once the elbow is repaired, medication will be given to help reduce swelling and pain.
Other aspects of your treatment depend on the severity of the dislocation and other tissue damage.
The elbow joint will be immobilized with a splint or sling to help it heal properly. You may need to wear the support for up to 3 weeks, even if it was a simple dislocation.
Exercises and rehabilitation are an important part of recovery. Motion exercises are started as soon as possible to help prevent stiffness and permanent loss of motion.
Physical therapy can help restore strength, range of motion, and flexibility.
Complex dislocations may require surgery to:
An external hinge may be needed to support the bones while they heal. Future surgeries may also be needed to improve motion and remove scar tissue.
Family Doctor—American Academy of Family Physicians
American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons
Canadian Association of General Surgeons
Canadian Orthopaedic Foundation
Elbow dislocation. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons Ortho Info website. Available at: http://orthoinfo.aaos.org/topic.cfm?topic=A00029. Updated October 2007. Accessed December 9, 2013.
Elbow dislocation. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed. Updated January 16, 2013. Accessed December 9, 2013.
Englert C, Zellner J, et al. Elbow dislocations: A review ranging from soft tissue injuries to complex elbow fracture dislocations. Adv Orthop. 2013. [Epub ahead of print].
Last reviewed December 2014 by Michael Woods, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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