Dislocated Elbow

What is a Dislocated Elbow?

A dislocated elbow occurs when the bones that connect to the elbow joint are dislocated. It typically occurs when you land on a fall with your arm outstretched. The elbow is the most commonly dislocated joint among children and the second most dislocated join in adults.

A dislocated elbow requires immediate care from a doctor as it can trap blood vessels and make the nerves in the lower arm and hand become pinched.

What are the Symptoms of a Dislocated Elbow?

The main symptom of a dislocated elbow is pain in the area. Pain can be quite extreme. The joint is obviously distorted. If the elbow is only partially dislocated there may be bruising as well. Children with a dislocated elbow might hold it flexed near the body and avoid using it.

Dislocated Elbow Causes

The most common cause of a dislocated elbow is a fall, where the individual extends their arm in an attempt to break their fall. This places the full weight of the body on the joints of the arm.

The joint that takes the majority of the force depends on the position of the arm — if the hand is away from the body, and there is some twisting, the force will land on the elbow. This causes the elbow to flex beyond its normal range, triggering a partial or complete dislocation.

Another cause is a direct trauma to the elbow joint, for example during a traffic accident or while playing a contact sport. A forceful enough blow can cause dislocation of the elbow.

In young infants, the elbow can be dislocated by lifting or swinging the child by the arms. This cause the joint to stretch, which may move the elbow out of its normal position. This is known as Nursemaid’s Elbow.

How is a Dislocated Elbow Treated?

On rare occasions, treatment is not needed and a dislocated elbow will go back into place on its own.

Treatment includes

A doctor is required to put the bone back into the joint by using a reduction technique.

Medication may be given before the procedure to reduce pain and relax the muscles to make the procedure easier and less painful.

After the bones have been properly realigned, the doctor may recommend wearing a sling or a splint for a couple weeks. Physical therapy may also be suggested to get you to do exercises that will improve strength of the muscles and range of motion.

On rare occasions, surgery may be recommended if any of the bones have been broken. Also, torn ligaments need to be reattached in surgery and if blood vessels or nerves have been damaged, surgery may be needed, as well.

Dislocated Elbow Prevention

Try to avoid or take care in situations that are likely to result in a fall. For example, use walking sticks while hiking on unstable terrain, or if your mobility is impaired due to age, a medical condition, or another injury. You should also take extra care while walking on slippery surfaces, or in areas with poor lighting.

If you do fall, do not brace your impact using an outstretched arm. Instead, tuck your arms, legs and head into your body and try to roll into the fall if possible. Some martial arts classes such as Judo, Jiu Jitsu, and Aikido teach break-falls, which are the safest ways to reduce the impact of a fall.

Do not pick up young children by the arms — raise them by the body instead. This will prevent the elbow from dislocating as you raise them.

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Last Reviewed:
September 20, 2016
Last Updated:
December 14, 2017