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Signs of a broken elbow

Signs of an Elbow Fracture: Is My Elbow Broken?

A lot of people live under the false presumption that it takes a tremendous amount of force to fracture an elbow. Sure, it sounds logical that it would have to be a noteworthy impact to shatter (or at least crack) bones in your elbow but this is not always the case. Sometimes, you won’t feel the full brunt of symptoms until the injury has cooled off, which makes any self-diagnosis quite difficult.

Here are some common signs of an elbow fracture, a few types of elbow fractures, as well as some tips for treatment. Chances are that you’re wondering whether your elbow is broken or just bruised, but even if it turns out to be a false alarm, this sort of knowledge always comes in handy.

What Are the Symptoms of a Fractured Elbow?

Like with any other fracture, the five most common symptoms of a fractured elbow are:

  • Sudden sharp pain
  • Sharp pain every time you try to move the joint
  • Inability to straighten the elbow
  • Swelling and bruising around the elbow area
  • Tenderness to touch

Keep in mind that it’s possible to experience some of these symptoms even if your elbow is just bruised. Even more likely, your elbow might be sprained. For instance, even if it’s sprained, dislocated, or bruised, you’ll be unable to straighten it and the pain will accompany every movement. Still, the pain of a broken elbow is incredibly intense.

How to Know Is My Elbow Broken?

Although we’ve described the pain as intense; the truth is that even the best elbow specialists can’t determine that it’s a fracture based simply on your testimony (not with 100% certainty). In other words, the specialist needs to take a look at the X-rays of your elbow.

A lot of people are afraid of the radiation involved in the procedure but the likelihood of a limb X-ray causing harm (even in the distant future) is 1 in 1,000,000. In other words, this is both a standard procedure and a completely harmless undertaking. Only after getting an X-ray image will the doctors know if your elbow is broken.

What Are Common Elbow Fracture Types?

Generally speaking, there are three major types of elbow fractures:

  • Olecranon fractures: These are the fractures of the pointy tip of your elbow. The reason why these fractures are common is that they’re not protected by muscles, making them exposed. Also, depending on the impact that caused the fracture, its anatomy increases the odds that it will be the part of your elbow that takes the full brunt of the force.
  • Distal humerus fractures: This is a fracture of the part that connects the shoulder to the elbow. Out of these three types, distal humerus fractures may be the least common but are also the most difficult to treat surgically. How they happen is usually due to a fall onto a bent elbow.
  • Radial head fractures: Radial head allows you to rotate your forearm and connects with the humerus. Now, the reason why they are incredibly common is that they usually happen when someone tries to break a fall with their arm. They usually require the least amount of treatment. Also, they’re one of the main reasons why about 10% of all bone fractures in children are elbow fractures.

Remember that signs of an elbow fracture are the same across all three of these types. So, the above-listed information (regarding the types) is only relevant for those who have already been diagnosed and now want to know exactly what they’re dealing with. As a layman, any attempt to try and figure out which of the three types you’re dealing with is futile and you should head to the doctor as soon as possible.

What Is Broken Elbow Treatment Like?

The vast majority of broken elbows are treated non-invasively. Most fractures of the radial head require several days of protection and then motion out of the sling to help keep your elbow joint from getting stiff. Olecranon fractures and distal humerus fracture usually require surgical fixation.

Seeing as how the pain can be quite intense, pain- or anti-inflammatory medication may be prescribed, as well.

Lastly, seeing as how this is a delicate part of your extremities and it will be inactive for a while, you’ll likely be prescribed physical therapy. At the very least, you’ll get a list of exercises that you’ll have to perform, either on your own or under the supervision of a physical therapist.

In a scenario where nothing else is helpful, you might have to undergo elbow fracture surgery. While this is an extreme measure, the three most common types of surgeries performed are:

  • Closed reduction percutaneous pinning.
  • Open reduction and internal fixation
  • Radial head replacement
  • Total elbow replacement

Once again, these depend on the type of injury. For instance, a total elbow replacement surgery only takes place if your elbow has suffered severe damage. Just keep in mind that surgery (and the serious injury that made it necessary) will also mean that the healing process will take longer. Speaking of which…

How Long Does a Fractured Elbow Take to Heal?

Again, this completely depends on the injury, as well as some subjective factors but, generally speaking, the injury should heal in 6 to 12 weeks.

During the first 3 weeks, you will likely be advised to be gentle. If there are some elbow exercises, they’ll be incredibly light. In this stage, your priority will be to learn how to handle pain and swelling and getting your motion back.

After 2-3 weeks, your exercises should become a tad more ambitious. This means that you should aim for a full movement. The key thing to pay attention to is the straightening of your elbow. How well you do in this stage will greatly determine the recovery time for a broken elbow.

After 6 to 12 weeks, if you’re lucky, the treatment has gone right, and you’ve been hard-working with your physiotherapy, you should start getting back to normal.

Wrap Up

Recognizing signs of an elbow fracture is detrimental to being able to react in time. While the pain is intense, under the influence of adrenaline you might not feel the full brunt of the injury right away. The best piece of advice that we can give is to avoid underestimating an injury or just assuming that you’ll be able to walk it off.

Your safest course of action is to find an expert in elbow fractures at the Orthopedic Institute of New Jersey and get their opinion.

This article was reviewed and approved by an orthopedic surgeon as we place a high premium on accuracy for our patients and potential patients.