Key Points about Elbow Fractures

  • An elbow fracture is a fracture to one of the three bones that makes up the elbow. The three types of elbow fractures include olecranon fracture, a radial head fracture, or a distal humerus fracture.
  • Elbow fractures are caused by falls on the elbow, direct blows to the elbow, and falling on an outstretched hand where the elbow is bracing the fall.
  • Symptoms of an elbow fracture include swelling, pain, discoloration, tenderness, or instability in the joint.
  • If you are an older adult, have a condition that weakens the bones, or play a contact sport, you are at higher risk of developing an elbow fracture.
  • To diagnose an elbow fracture, your doctor will perform a physical exam and order diagnostic testing, such as an X-ray or CT scan.

Overview

An elbow fracture or broken elbow is a fracture to the tip of the elbow.

The humerus (upper arm bone) radius (forearm bone located on the thumb side of the arm) and the ulna (forearm bone located on the pinky side of the arm) come together to form the elbow joint. The ulna is the bony point at the end of the elbow that is typically broken in an elbow fracture.

There are three types of elbow fractures, an olecranon fracture, radial head fracture, and a distal humerus fracture.

Elbow fracture types

There are three types of elbow fractures, including:

  • Olecranon fracture. Olecranon fractures typically occur when the tricep muscles above the elbow suddenly contract during a fall. The olecranon is the bone at the tip of the elbow. It is most vulnerable to fracture because muscles or other tissues do not cover it. If you have an olecranon fracture, you may experience sharp pain, trouble extending the elbow, swelling, or tenderness.
  • Radial head fracture. The radial head is the bone in the elbow 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 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. Distal humerus fractures are not common. Symptoms may include elbow pain, swelling, or feeling instability when picking up an object.

Elbow fracture causes

Elbow fractures are caused by a variety of injuries or activities, including:

  • Forceful fall on the elbow.
  • A direct blow to the elbow.
  • Falling on an outstretched arm.
  • Trauma to the elbow from activities like falling off a motorcycle or bike.

Elbow fracture symptoms

The most common symptom of an elbow fracture is acute, intense pain that prevents you from moving your elbow.

Other symptoms of a fracture include:

  • Swelling on the back of the elbow.
  • Discoloration, bruising, or redness in the elbow.
  • Finger numbness.
  • Tender when touched.
  • The sensation of instability in the joint.
  • Intense pain when moving the elbow or rotating the forearm.

Elbow fracture complications

Complications of elbow fractures include:

  • Developing elbow arthritis.
  • Stiffness in the elbow joint.
  • Misaligned or joint that does not align at all after treatment.

Elbow fracture risk factors

Factors that increase your risk of developing an elbow fracture include:

  • Older adults are more likely to experience an elbow fracture.
  • Osteoporosis.
  • Participating in sports such as football, hockey, wrestling, and gymnastics.
  • Being post-menopausal or having other conditions that lead to bone or mineral loss.
  • Having a condition that weakens the bones.

Elbow fracture prevention

While it is not possible to prevent all elbow fractures, there are steps you can take to reduce your risk, including:

  • Maintain strength and agility by exercising regularly.
  • Wear protective gear during sporting activities.
  • Learn proper techniques for your sport.
  • Take steps to reduce your likelihood of falling.

Elbow fracture diagnosis

Your doctor can diagnose an elbow fracture with a physical exam and diagnostic imaging. Your doctor will evaluate the shoulder and elbow, assess the arm for swelling, bruising, or any apparent breaks. If a bone has protruded through the skin, you should be treated immediately in the emergency room.

During the exam, your doctor will determine when the injury occurred, the severity of your pain, and where the pain is located. You will also be asked to flex your arm to understand if you have more damaged the ligaments as well.

Your doctor will take a full medical history to understand if you have had previous elbow injuries or if you have conditions that put you at higher risk for developing an elbow fracture.

Imaging tests

If your doctor suspects you have a fractured elbow, he or she will likely order diagnostic imaging tests such as:

  • X-ray. An X-ray can reveal the location and severity of the fracture.
  • CT scan. A CT scan can help your doctor understand if there is more than one fracture or if the bones have separated from each other.

Elbow fracture treatment

Early diagnosis and treatment of an elbow fracture will help prevent long-term complications. 

Treatments may include:

  • Cast, splint, or sling to support the elbow during the healing process.
  • Prescription or over-the-counter medications can help relieve pain and inflammation.
  • Moving the bone pieces back into place. This can be done either during surgery where pins, wires, plates, and screws reconnect pieces to hold them in place or without surgery where the doctor manually moves the pieces back into place.

When to Seek Care

If you think you have a broken elbow or the bone is protruding through the skin, visit the emergency room right away.

If you have minor swelling, no open wounds or bruising, and no loss of feeling, call your doctor to determine the most appropriate medical care.

Next Steps

Healing time will vary depending on your overall health and age. On average, most people recover within eight to ten weeks after the injury.

Your doctor will likely recommend physical therapy or rehab therapy to help strengthen the affected elbow and improve range of motion.