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What is Elbow Dislocation?

A dislocation of the elbow occurs when an injury (usually a fall on to the hand resulting in a violent twisting or hyperextension of the elbow) results in one or more ligaments of the elbow to completely rupture, resuilting in the ulna or radius no longer lining up correctly with the humerus.

Symptoms of Elbow Dislocation

The signs and symptoms of elbow dislocation are obvious. Typically the elbow has a highly visible and gruesome deformity. The pain will be severe. There will be rapid onset of bruising and swelling. The displacement of bone structures can tear the overlying skin or injure nerves, resulting in weakness and numbness in the hand.

Diagnosis of Elbow Dislocation

A brief physical examination by a physician and an X-ray are all that are needed to diagnose a dislocation of the elbow. It is important to obtain the X-ray, as very often there will be associated fractures which significantly alter the required treatment.

Treatment Options for Elbow Dislocation

An elbow dislocation is a serious injury and requires immediate medical attention.

Things You can do at Home when you have an Elbow Dislocation

At home, you may apply an ice pack to the elbow to ease pain and swelling. You should present to a hospital emergency department as soon as possible, or call 911 if you are unable to transport yourself to the emergency department.

What your Doctor Does to Treat an Elbow Dislocation

Your doctor will put your dislocated elbow back in place by pulling traction on your wrist while maneuvering your elbow. This procedure is known as a closed reduction. As it is a painful procedure you may be given a local anesthetic and / or a sedative to relieve your pain and relax you before the procedure. After the reduction, the elbow will need to be temporarily immobilized in a cast or splint until some ligament healing has occurred. At that point, physical therapy may begin. Surgery is rarely required if the elbow is unable to be reducedin the emergency department. Typically most patients will recover most but not all of their motion. It is rare for a patient’s ligaments to not heal but if there are concerns about this (e.g. due to persisting elbow pain, clicking, or feelings of the elbow “giving way”) then further treatment may be necessary. For more information refer to the section on elbow ligament injuries.

  • NASS
  • AAOS
  • American Association of Hip and Knee Surgeons (AAHKS)
  • Tufts University School of Medicine
  • Newton-Wellesley Hospital