Definition

An elbow dislocation is when the bones of the elbow are pulled out of place. There may also be damage to bones, ligaments, and muscles.

The Elbow Joint

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Causes

Causes may be:

  • Falling on an outstretched hand
  • A direct blow to the elbow, such as from a motor vehicle accident

Risk Factors

The risk of this problem may be raised in those who play certain sports, such as:

  • Gymnastics
  • Wrestling
  • Basketball
  • Football

Symptoms

The main problem is severe elbow pain. Other problems may be:

  • Swelling
  • Changes in the way the arm looks
  • Pain with movement
  • Bruising

Diagnosis

The doctor will ask about your symptoms and health history. You will be asked how the injury happened. A physical exam will be done. It will focus on the elbow. This is often enough to make the diagnosis.

Images may also be taken. This can be done with:

Treatment

It may take up to 6 weeks to recover. The goals of treatment are to put the bones of the elbow back into place and to promote healing.

The bones may be put back in place:

  • Without surgery—anesthesia will be used to decrease pain while the doctor puts the bones back into place
  • With surgery—an incision will be made to put the bones back into place and to repair any damaged ligaments. An external hinge may be used to support the bones while they heal.

Other treatment may include:

  • Medicines to ease pain and swelling
  • Supportive care, such as resting the area and using cold or warm compresses
  • A splint or sling to keep the elbow in place as it heals
  • Physical therapy to help with strength, flexibility, and range of motion

Prevention

This injury is due to an accident. These are hard to prevent.

RESOURCES:

Family Doctor—American Academy of Family Physicians
http://familydoctor.org

Ortho Info— American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons
http://orthoinfo.org

CANADIAN RESOURCES:

Canadian Association of General Surgeons
http://www.cags-accg.ca

Canadian Orthopaedic Foundation
http://www.canorth.org

REFERENCES:

American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (ACOEM). Elbow disorders. J Occup Environ Med. 2013 Nov;55(11):1365-1374.

Elbow dislocation. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/condition/elbow-dislocation. Accessed February 18, 2021.

Elbow dislocation. Ortho Info—American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons website. Available at: https://orthoinfo.aaos.org/en/diseases--conditions/elbow-dislocation. Accessed February 18, 2021.

Rezaie N, Gupta S, Service BC, Osbahr DC. Elbow dislocation. Clin Sports Med. 2020;39(3):637-655.

Last reviewed December 2020 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Laura Lei-Rivera, PT, DPT  Last Updated: 2/18/2021