An elbow fracture is a break in one or more of the bones that make up the elbow joint. The bones in the elbow joint include the humerus (upper arm bone), the ulna (the larger of the forearm bones at the elbow) and the radius (the smaller of the forearm bones at the elbow). Elbow fractures are typically caused by trauma to the elbow which can occur by:
- Falling on an outstretched arm
- Falling directly on the elbow
- Direct blow to the elbow
- Twisting the elbow beyond the elbow's normal range of motion
Some sports are more likely than others to create these circumstances for injury including football, basketball, hockey, wrestling and gymnastics. Natural risk factors that can increase the chance of elbow fracture include advancing age, decreased muscle mass, osteoporosis or other bone diseases.
- Pain in and around the elbow
- Numbness in fingers, hands or lower arm
- Decreased range of motion
- A lump or visible deformity over the fracture site
- Tenderness, swelling and bruising around the elbow
Early diagnosis and treatment significantly improves recovery from an elbow fracture. Depending on the severity of the fracture, a temporary cast or splint may be used to hold the bones in place for healing. In severe cases, a metal plate and screws might be surgically implanted to mend the fracture. Healing time typically takes about 8-12weeks. During that time, range of motion exercises under the guidance of a physician will be employed to improve motion and strengthen the area.
Full recovery from an elbow fracture requires a lot of work. It is extremely important that exercises, once started, are performed multiple times a day, every day. Physical therapy will sometimes be prescribed. If so, the patient should still do exercises at home on days he or she does not work with the therapist. The exercises only make a difference if they're done regularly. Recovering strength often takes longer than expected; sometimes, 6 months or more.
The goal of treatment for an elbow fracture is to regain full motion of the elbow, as it was prior to the injury. Most patients will return to normal activities (except sports and heavy labor) within about 4 months, although full healing can take more than a year. Many patients report that, although their X-rays show full healing, they are not at 100% but are improving over time.