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Elbow Dislocation

Last updated May 22, 2018

Approved by: Krish Tangella MD, MBA, FCAP

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An Elbow Dislocation is a painful and traumatic injury that occurs, when the bones that make up the elbow joint is forced out of the socket, either partially or completely.

What are the other Names for this Condition? (Also known as/Synonyms)

  • Dislocated Elbow
  • Dislocation of the Elbow

What is Elbow Dislocation? (Definition/Background Information)

  • The elbow is a hinge joint comprising of 3 bones - the humerus, radius, and ulna
  • An Elbow Dislocation is a painful and traumatic injury that occurs, when the bones that make up the elbow joint is forced out of the socket, either partially or completely
  • Such dislocations are usually caused by high-energy impacts resulting from an athletic sport, a motor vehicle accident, or a fall from a substantial height
  • Overall, children and adolescents have the highest rate of incidence of the condition
  • A high percentage of Elbow Dislocations do not require any surgical correction

Who gets Elbow Dislocation? (Age and Sex Distribution)

  • Elbow Dislocations may occur in individuals of all ages, races, ethnic groups, and gender
  • However, it is more common in men than women
  • Generally, children and adolescents, have a high incident rate

What are the Risk Factors for Elbow Dislocation? (Predisposing Factors)

Common risk factors associated with an Elbow Dislocation include:

  • Participation in high-risk contact sports, such as football, soccer, rugby
  • Children have a higher risk, due to the flexibility of ligaments
  • Excessive consumption of alcohol increases the risk of fall injuries
  • Studies have indicated that Elbow Dislocations may have a genetic component

It is important to note that having a risk factor does not mean that one will get the condition. A risk factor increases ones chances of getting a condition compared to an individual without the risk factors. Some risk factors are more important than others.

Also, not having a risk factor does not mean that an individual will not get the condition. It is always important to discuss the effect of risk factors with your healthcare provider.

What are the Causes of Elbow Dislocation? (Etiology)

A few causes of an Elbow Dislocation include:

  • Direct trauma to the elbow, due to an automobile accident
  • Taking part in any rough or high-impact sport
  • Falling from a significant height; especially landing on one’s elbow/arm (or the injury occurring since the individual is overweight)
  • Improper lifting of a child

What are the Signs and Symptoms of Elbow Dislocation?

Signs and symptoms of an Elbow Dislocation include:

  • Excruciating pain in the elbow
  • Visible elbow joint deformity
  • Pain and bruising at the site of the injury

How is Elbow Dislocation Diagnosed?

Diagnostic methods that a physician may use to help diagnose an Elbow Dislocation include:

  • Physical examination: A physician will perform a thorough physical examination of the elbow and arm. In addition to this, a complete medical history may aid in arriving at a definitive diagnosis
  • X-ray of elbow joint: An X-ray of the elbow joint is a common method of evaluating an Elbow Dislocation. This diagnostic test provides a clear image of the dislocation, shows if any bones are broken, and is useful in identifying any other damage to the elbow joint
  • Computerized tomography (CT) scan of elbow joint: A CT scan takes a series of X-ray images from several different angles. These images are then merged to create cross-sectional images of bones and soft tissues of the body. This allows a physician to examine the elbow joint and surrounding structures of the body
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of elbow joint: An MRI is a more detailed scan that uses a magnetic field to produce images that allow a physician to view any damage to the bones and soft tissue. This aids in confirming a diagnosis
  • Electromyography (EMG): An EMG shows the electrical activity of the muscle during rest and during contraction. Examining the electrical activity may help a physician study and identify any muscle or nerve disorders, resulting from recurring Elbow Dislocations

Many clinical conditions may have similar signs and symptoms. Your healthcare provider may perform additional tests to rule out other clinical conditions to arrive at a definitive diagnosis.

What are the possible Complications of Elbow Dislocation?

Complications associated with an Elbow Dislocation include:

  • Permanent damage to nerves and blood vessels; trapped arteries and nerves
  • Degenerative joint disease (osteoarthritis)
  • Avulsion fracture: They occur when small bone fragments or ligaments are detached (pulled-off) the main bone. These fractures are more common in children, than adults

How is Elbow Dislocation Treated?

A high percentage of Elbow Dislocation injuries do not a require surgery. However, a small percentage of cases require surgery, in order to help realign the elbow joint and repair any damaged ligaments.

Nonsurgical treatment measures include:

  • Applying ice to the elbow can help reduce pain and swelling
  • Complete immobilization of the elbow with a cast, may be required to restrict movement
  • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory oral medications, such as indomethacin and naproxen, may be used to treat an Elbow Dislocation. These medications can help decrease the pain and swelling
  • Individuals are likely to need physical therapy exercises. The goals of these exercises are to strengthen the muscles, increase stability, and decrease stiffness. A physical therapist may recommend an exercise program to aid in treating the condition

Surgical treatment measures include:

  • Closed reduction: Closed reduction is a surgical treatment method that is used to realign the elbow joint, back to its original position without making an incision. This procedure can be performed under general anesthesia, spinal anesthesia, or through conscious sedation with muscle relaxants
  • Open reduction and internal fixation (ORIF): Open reduction is a surgical procedure to realign the fractured bone, to its original position. Surgical hardware (such as plates, screws, or rods) is then used to stabilize the fractured bone under the skin. This procedure is only required, if any bones are also broken

How can Elbow Dislocation be Prevented?

To prevent an Elbow Dislocation, individuals should be careful and consciously aware, while performing any physical activities, such as sports, or even some normal daily activities that could lead to situations involving accidents. Children must be provided a safe environment to work, study, or play. Any possible dangers should also be anticipated and appropriate safety measures adopted.

A few ways to further help prevent unwanted injuries or Elbow Dislocations include:

  • Wearing appropriate footwear (such as the proper shoe size) may help prevent accidents
  • Individuals, who participate in any high-risk sports, such as football, should wear appropriate safety equipment to help prevent the possibility of any injury to the elbow

What is the Prognosis of Elbow Dislocation? (Outcomes/Resolutions)

  • The long-term prognosis of an Elbow Dislocation is usually good, in a majority of the individuals. With proper treatment, a high percentage of the individuals can regain their full strength and range of motion, in the affected elbow
  • Some individuals with severely dislocated conditions may experience adverse long-term effects, due to damage of the surrounding connective tissue. Immediate medical assistance is vital in reducing the possibility of development of any serious complications
  • It may take about  2-3 months, to recover from a Elbow Dislocation

Additional and Relevant Useful Information for Elbow Dislocation:

An Elbow Dislocation is the most common dislocation in children, and the second-most common dislocation in adults.

What are some Useful Resources for Additional Information?

References and Information Sources used for the Article:

Helpful Peer-Reviewed Medical Articles:

Reviewed and Approved by a member of the DoveMed Editorial Board
First uploaded: Feb. 1, 2014
Last updated: May 22, 2018