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What is an elbow dislocation?

Elbow dislocation is a condition in which the joint surfaces of the elbow are separated. Dislocations can be complete or partial, and can affect range of motion in the elbow.

Your elbow joint is made up of bone, cartilage, ligaments and fluid. Muscles and tendons help the elbow joint move. The elbow is made up of three bones: the humerus (a bone in the upper arm) and the radius and the ulna (two bones in the forearm).

There are two types of elbow dislocations:

  • Simple dislocations, which are dislocations not accompanied by any bone injury.
  • Complex dislocations, which are dislocations that also cause acute bone and/or ligament injury.

Symptoms

Partial elbow dislocations are common after an accident and are not often easy to spot. There is usually pain and bruising, but the elbow may appear and move normally, since the bones within the elbow can relocate on their own.

A complete elbow dislocation is much more obvious, as the area is fully disjointed and the arm will look deformed as a result. The elbow may have an odd twist and will be extremely painful and impossible to move. 

Causes

Unlike the knees and hips, the elbows are not commonly prone to dislocation. This is because the elbow is made up of bone surfaces, ligaments and muscles that help keep it stable.

However, dislocations do happen, usually when excess force is applied to the elbow during a fall onto an outstretched hand or when you reach out to brace yourself during a car accident. Dislocation is especially likely when the joint is twisted with the applied force. 

Treatment options

There are two types of treatment options for elbow dislocation: nonsurgical and surgical. Nonsurgical treatment is most often used for partial dislocations, whereas surgery is usually necessary for complete dislocations.

Nonsurgical treatment for elbow dislocation usually involves a doctor resetting the elbow manually, called a “reduction maneuver.” For simple dislocations, the elbow is then kept in a splint for two to three weeks to restrict movement and promote healing. Physical therapy may be needed to help restore full range of motion. 

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