The elbow is the joint in our body which allows movements like bending and straightening, in a hinge-like way. It also allows the forearm to rotate, allowing the palm of the hand to turn up and down. It is a complex joint which is made up of the three bones in the arm, the upper arm bone called the humerus which extends from the shoulder down to the elbow. The two lower arm bones, the radius and the ulna which run from the elbow down to the wrist. These bones are connected by a series of ligaments, tendons and muscles which allow flexibility and movement.

When the elbow sustains a serious injury like a break, where one or more of the three bones are involved, pain is severe, and problems with movement and nerve damage can be long lasting. While the more serious fractures can lead to bone breakage causing severe pain and immobility of the arm, most fractures are like a thin crack in the bone, called a hairline fracture. Not always easy to detect or see, this type of fractured elbow is usually recognizable by an aching pain with redness and/or swelling in and around the elbow.

Causes of a Fractured Elbow

Direct impact from a fall onto the elbow can lead to acute trauma of the elbow joint. Other causes are overuse, often seen in sports’ injuries. A common sports injury to the elbow is seen with snowboarders, who, in an attempt to break a fall, use their outstretched arm or fall directly onto the elbow sustaining an elbow injury. Skateboarders or cyclists often land directly onto the elbow causing trauma.

You can break your elbow from sports injuries or a simple fall, however, elbow fractures are very often seen as the result of a car or motorbike accident and are injuries that are commonly seen in both children and adults. The sooner treatment of a fractured elbow is started the better the outcome for recovery, reducing the risk of complications at a later stage.

Types of Elbow Fractures

Olecranon Fracture

An olecranon fracture is a break in the ulna bone. This is the prominent bone in the elbow joint , positioned immediately under the skin and can be felt easily as it doesn’t have muscles or other soft tissue which protect it. It is broken by a direct blow or a fall onto the elbow. Gymnasts often present with this type of elbow fracture caused by falling onto an outstretched arm. This is a very painful injury and movement will be difficult if not impossible.

Radial Neck / Head Fractures

Seen in both children and adults, this is an injury to the radius bone, either at the head or neck. Fractures of this type are the result of a heavy fall onto an outstretched hand or by landing directly onto the elbow. This type of fractured elbow can be treated with a sling, giving it the necessary rest to heal. You can break your elbow and still move it and for this reason it is sometimes necessary to place the elbow in a cast for extra protection.

Osteochondritis Dissecans

Or chipped elbow, this condition occurs when a small piece of bone (or cartilage) becomes loose (chips off) and moves freely around the elbow joint. This condition is usually caused by an injury to the elbow or sometimes from a lack of blood to the bone. Athletes, whose sport involves throwing (discus throwers) and gymnasts, are often subject to this painful injury.  Rest and avoidance of the sport or action causing the injury is recommended for a period of time, along with ice packs and pain medication. If the bone fragment is big, sometimes elbow surgery will be necessary to remove the bone chipped in the elbow.

Broken elbow recovery time depends on the severity and nature of the break but can be anything from 6 – 12 weeks.  Sometimes a period of physiotherapy may be necessary to help with movement and flexibility of the arm and elbow joint.

Broken Elbow Symptoms ?

If you have swelling, stiffness or bruising accompanied by pain around the elbow area these are typical fractured elbow symptoms and you should seek medical assistance as soon as possible.

If, on the other hand you can actually see a deformity, or there is a feeling of numbness or weakness in the hands, wrists or arm, these could be the signs of a dislocated joint or that the bones are out of place. Again, medical attention is best sought as soon as possible.

Recommended Treatment for a Fractured Elbow

The use of a sling, cast or splint is common as a non-surgical treatment.  The treatment choice depends on the age of the patient, where a cast is the more common choice for children who are less able to “rest” the injured elbow and who pose less of a risk of developing elbow stiffness.  Ice or heat packs and anti-inflammatory medicine may be prescribed by your medical practitioner.

Specific exercises, either at home or with a physiotherapist may be required to help with recovery of movement and flexibility.