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What is an elbow fracture?

An elbow fracture is a fracture to one of the 3 bones that makes up the elbow – the humerus, radius and ulna bones. Elbow fractures often occur from a fall impacting on the elbow, a direct blow to the elbow or when breaking a fall with the elbow in a fully straightened position.

There are 3 main types of elbow fractures:

  • Olecranon fracture – The olecranon is the bone at the tip of the elbow. It is most vulnerable to fracture because it is not covered by muscles or other soft tissues. If you have an olecranon fracture, you may experience sharp pain, trouble straightening the elbow, swelling, or tenderness.
  • Radial head fracture – The radial head is the top of the radius bone that connects with the humerus in the elbow joint. Radial head fractures generally occur when a person puts their arm out to break a fall. The impact can cause the radial head to push into the humerus so hard that it causes a fracture. Symptoms of a radial head fracture include pain when turning the palm, pain when extending the arm, and swelling.
  • Distal humerus fracture – The rounded bottom part of the bone connecting the shoulder to the elbow is the distal humerus. Distal humerus fractures are not as common and occur as a result of a direct blow to the elbow, putting your hand out to break a fall, or falling on a bent elbow. Symptoms may include elbow pain, swelling, or feeling instability when picking up an object.

How do I know if I have an elbow fracture?

Signs and symptoms of an elbow fracture may include:

  • Pain
  • Swelling
  • Warmth, bruising or redness
  • Obvious deformity of the bone or joint
  • Inability to use or move the injured elbow or nearby joints
  • Unable to put weight on the upper limb

How are elbow fractures diagnosed?

Your specialist Doctor will obtain your health history and perform a physical examination. Your Doctor may also order radiological investigations (e.g. X-rays, CT scans) to help diagnose the fracture.

How are elbow fractures treated?

Elbow fractures can be treated both surgically and non-surgically, depending on the severity of the injury.

Non-surgical Treatment

Fractures that are stable may be realigned manually by your specialist Doctor and immobilised by a cast or splint. The cast or splint helps to hold the fractured bone in a stable position while it heals and needs to be worn for 2 to 6 weeks, depending on the severity of the fracture. Once your specialist Doctor ascertains that the fracture is stable and healing adequately, your Doctor will refer you to our Hand Therapist to start gentle elbow and wrist exercises.

Surgical Treatment

Sometimes, when the elbow fracture is more severe, unstable or complex (e.g. with accompanying joint dislocation or ligament injuries), your specialist Doctor may recommend that you undergo surgery to secure the fractured bones back in place with metal implants. After surgery, your specialist Doctor will refer you to our Hand Therapist when it is safe for you to begin gentle elbow and wrist exercises.

Hand Therapy

Joint stiffness, muscle tightness, weakness and loss of function of the elbow and wrist are common problems in the early stages of recovery from an elbow fracture. As such, daily activities such as self-care (e.g. dressing, showering, brushing of teeth), work activities and leisure pursuits (e.g. cycling, tennis, gym activities) are often affected. Hand therapy plays a pivotal role in the recovery of upper limb movement, strength and function after an elbow fracture. Most elbow fractures take around 3 to 4 months to heal before you are able to return to your normal daily activities, and full recovery from these injuries can take up to a year.

If you require protective immobilisation for your elbow fracture, your specialist Doctor may refer you to our Hand Therapist for a customised splint. Once you are able to start therapy for your elbow and wrist, our Hand Therapist can then help you in your recovery through treatment options such as:

  • Advice and education pertaining to your condition
  • Wax therapy
  • Ultrasound therapy
  • Exercises to improve elbow/wrist joint and muscle movements
  • Management of swelling
  • Scar management
  • Strengthening exercises
  • Soft tissue mobilisation and release
  • Pain relief/management
  • Functional retraining of the finger and hand
  • Personalised home exercise program