What is dislocated elbow?
A dislocated elbow occurs when the bones that make up the joint are forced out of alignment — typically when you land on an outstretched hand during a fall. The elbow is the second most commonly dislocated joint after the shoulder in adults, and the most commonly dislocated joint in children.
Toddlers may experience a dislocated elbow, sometimes known as nursemaid’s elbow, if they are lifted or swung by their forearms.
If you or your child has a dislocated elbow, seek immediate medical attention. Complications can occur if the dislocated elbow pinches or traps the blood vessels and the nerves that serve the lower arm and hand.
A dislocated elbow can usually be realigned without surgery. However, if your elbow is also fractured, you might need surgery.
How common is dislocated elbow?
Dislocated elbow is extremely common. Please discuss with your doctor for further information.
What are the symptoms of dislocated elbow?
The common symptoms of dislocated elbow are:
- Extreme pain
- Obvious distortion of the joint
Toddlers with nursemaid’s elbow might experience pain only when the affected elbow is moved. A child often avoids using the arm and holds it slightly flexed next to the body.
Sometimes, the elbow is only partially dislocated. Partial dislocation can cause bruising and pain where the ligaments were stretched or torn.
There may be some symptoms not listed above. If you have any concerns about a symptom, please consult your doctor.
When should I see my doctor?
You should contact your doctor if you or your child has extreme pain or obvious distortion of the elbow joint.
What causes dislocated elbow?
In adults, the most common causes of a dislocated elbow include:
- Falling onto an outstretched hand can pop the upper arm bone out of alignment within the elbow joint.
- Motor vehicle accidents. The same type of impact can occur when passengers in motor vehicle accidents reach forward to brace themselves before a collision.
In children or teenagers, falling onto an outstretched hand is also a common cause of a dislocated elbow.
In toddlers, the injury often occurs when an extra pulling motion is applied to an outstretched arm. The causes of such injuries include:
- Improper lifting. Trying to lift or swing a young child by the arms can cause the elbow to dislocate.
- Sudden pulling. Having the child suddenly step off a curb or stairstep as you’re holding his or her hand can pull the elbow out of alignment.
What increases my risk for dislocated elbow?
There are many risk factors for dislocated elbow, such as:
- Young children’s elbows are much more flexible than those of adults. So it’s easier for younger elbows to become dislocated.
- Some people are born with elbow ligaments that are looser than those of most people.
- Sports participation. Many elbow dislocations are sports-related. Sports that require weight bearing with the arms, such as gymnastics floor exercise, are especially risky for elbow dislocations.
Diagnosis & treatment
The information provided is not a substitute for any medical advice. ALWAYS consult with your doctor for more information.
How is dislocated elbow diagnosed?
The doctor will make sure your nerves and arteries are unhurt by checking your pulse, making sure you can feel normally, move your fingers and wrist, and make sure that blood is flowing normally to your hand.
Next, the doctor will get X-rays. Sometimes, breaks in the bone can look like dislocations, and some breaks happen when dislocations occur.
If the doctor suspects an injury to your artery, further tests, such as an arteriogram (an X-ray of your artery) may be performed.
How is dislocated elbow treated?
The doctor will reduce (put back in place) your elbow by pulling down on your wrist and levering your elbow back into place. This is very painful, so powerful medications for pain may be given before reduction.
After your elbow is back in place, the doctor will get X-rays and then put you in a splint that will keep your elbow bent. The splint will make an “L” around the back of your elbow. It will be made of plaster or fiberglass. Its purpose is to prevent movement of your arm at the elbow. Usually, your arm will be placed in a sling to help you hold up your splint.
Lifestyle changes & home remedies
What are some lifestyle changes or home remedies that can help me manage dislocated elbow?
- An elbow dislocation is a serious injury that needs medical care. At home, put ice on the elbow. This will help with the pain and will reduce some of the swelling. But the most important thing to do is to see a doctor.
- It is best that this injury undergo evaluation by a doctor, but, at home, you can also check for a few signs that will show if the artery in the arm and the nerves are intact.
- To check for the artery, feel below your thumb at the base of your wrist. You should be able to feel your pulse. Press on the tips of your fingers. They should blanch (turn white) and then return to a normal pink color within 3 seconds. If either of these tests is abnormal, seek medical care immediately.
- Three nerves run by the elbow. Each nerve has portions that help with strength and feeling. First check for strength by bending your wrist up as if you were saying “Stop” (radial nerve function), then spread your fingers apart (ulnar nerve function), then try to touch your thumb to your little finger (median nerve function). If you have trouble with any of these tests, go to the doctor immediately.
- Check for feeling by touching all over your hand and arm. If any feeling of numbness results, see a doctor immediately.
If you have any questions, please consult with your doctor to better understand the best solution for you.
Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.
Dislocated elbow. https://www.webmd.com/a-to-z-guides/elbow-dislocation#2-7. Accessed October 25, 2017
Dislocated elbow. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/dislocated-elbow/basics/risk-factors/con-20034622. Accessed October 25, 2017
Review Date: October 25, 2017 | Last Modified: October 27, 2017