The elbow joint is a complex structure that allows for a wide range of movements in the arm. However, this joint is susceptible to injuries, with one of the most common and painful injuries being a dislocated elbow.
A dislocated elbow occurs when the bones that form the joint are forced out of their normal position. In this article, we will explore the causes and symptoms of a dislocated elbow, particularly shedding light on this injury to increase awareness and promote early diagnosis and treatment.
Causes of a dislocated elbow
Anatomically, the elbow is a complex joint that connects the bone of the upper arm (humerus) to the two bones in the forearm, known as the radius and ulna. It is a hinge joint that allows for bending and straightening of the arm, as well as rotation of the forearm. The elbow joint is supported by ligaments, tendons, and muscles, which help to stabilise and control its movements.
A dislocated elbow typically occurs as a result of a traumatic event that causes excessive force or impact on the joint. A healthcare provider may diagnose an elbow dislocation by evaluating the damage to the joints and tissues.
There are different types of elbow dislocation, including:
- Simple elbow dislocation: A type of injury to the supporting elbow ligaments. However, there are no injuries to the bones of the elbow joint.
- Complex elbow dislocation: This occurs when there is a severe injury to the ligaments and tendons, as well as broken bones (fractures)
- Severe elbow dislocation: In this type of dislocation, the injury has also caused damage to surrounding blood vessels and nerves around the elbow region
- Falls: Falling onto an outstretched hand can transmit significant force to the elbow, potentially leading to a dislocation
- Sports injuries: People participating in high-impact sports, such as football, basketball, gymnastics, or skiing, can have an increased risk of elbow dislocation
- Motor vehicle accidents: When there’s a forceful impact during a car crash or other vehicle accident, this can cause severe injuries, like a dislocated elbow.
- Direct blows: A direct blow to the elbow, such as from a fall or collision, can result in dislocation
- Physical altercations: In some cases, physical altercations or quarrels can lead to the dislocation of the elbow joint
- Nursemaid’s elbow: In some instances, grabbing or lifting a child by their arm can cause dislocation of the elbow. This is known as a partial dislocation or nursemaid’s elbow.
Signs and symptoms of dislocated elbow
- Visible deformity: A dislocated elbow may cause an obvious deformity, with the joint appearing to be out of place or misaligned
- Intense pain: Dislocated elbows are often accompanied by severe pain, which may worsen with movement or when pressure is applied to the joint
- Swelling and bruising: The injured elbow may exhibit swelling and bruising around the joint area, indicating tissue damage
- Limited range of motion: A dislocated elbow typically restricts the arm's movement, making it difficult or impossible to bend or straighten the elbow
- Numbness or tingling: Damage to nerves or blood vessels near the elbow may lead to numbness and tingling, similar to the "pins and needles" sensation, in the affected arm
- Weakness or instability: Individuals with a dislocated elbow often experience weakness or instability in the affected arm, making it challenging to perform simple tasks
Management and treatment for dislocated elbow
The management and treatment of a dislocated elbow depend on the severity of the injury. In some cases, a healthcare professional may be able to manually realign the joint by gently manipulating the bones back into their normal position. This procedure is known as a closed reduction and is typically performed under anaesthesia to minimise pain and discomfort.
After the joint is realigned, a splint or cast may be applied to immobilise the elbow and allow the surrounding soft tissues to heal.
Your healthcare provider may also prescribe some medications to relieve inflammation, along with proper rest.
To diagnose a dislocated elbow, a healthcare professional will perform a thorough physical examination and may order imaging tests, such as an X-ray, a CT scan, an ultrasound, or an MRI, to evaluate the extent of the injury.
X-rays can help identify fractures or damage to the surrounding bones, while an MRI can provide a detailed view of the soft tissues, such as ligaments and tendons, in the elbow joint.
Certain factors can increase the risk of dislocating the elbow. Athletes who participate in contact sports or activities that involve repetitive stress on the elbow joint, such as weightlifting or gymnastics, are more prone to elbow dislocations.
Additionally, individuals with a history of previous elbow dislocations or other injuries to the joint may be at a higher risk. It is important to take preventive measures to avoid elbow dislocations by using proper techniques and protective gear when engaging in activities that put stress on the elbow.1,2
The following groups may also be at a higher risk of dislocating their elbow:
- People over 65 years of age
- Children younger than 16 years of age
- Those with health issues that affect joint health, such as joint hypermobility syndrome
If left untreated or not managed properly, a dislocated elbow might lead to various complications. One of the most common complications is the development of scar tissue around the joint, which can restrict movement and cause long-term stiffness and pain.
Other potential complications include:
- Nerve damage
- Blood vessel injury
- Instability of the joint
How can I prevent a dislocated elbow?
While it is not always possible to prevent a dislocated elbow, there are steps you can take to reduce the risk of elbow injury. First and foremost, it is important to use proper technique and protective gear when participating in any sports or activities that can put stress on the elbow joint.
Strengthening the muscles around the elbow through regular exercises, such as proprioceptive exercises, can also help improve joint stability. Additionally, maintaining overall fitness and flexibility can contribute to better joint health and reduce the risk of injury.
How common is a dislocated elbow?
Dislocation of the elbow is the most common type of joint dislocation. The incidence of elbow dislocation is slightly more prevalent in people assigned to males at birth (around 53%) than in people assigned to females at birth.1,2
When should I see a doctor?
If you suspect that you have dislocated your elbow, it is crucial to seek immediate medical attention. Delaying treatment can lead to further complications and hinder the healing process. A healthcare professional will be able to perform a thorough examination, order appropriate diagnostic tests, and provide the necessary treatment to realign the joint and promote healing.
It is important to remember not to try to manipulate the joint back into place on your own, as this can cause further damage and increase the risk of complications.
A dislocated elbow is a painful condition that occurs when the bones of the forearm are forced out of their normal position in the elbow joint. It can be caused by traumatic injury, resulting in a simple or complex dislocation.
The most common symptoms include severe pain, swelling, and difficulty moving the arm. Prompt diagnosis and treatment are important to minimise complications and promote optimal recovery. Preventive measures, such as using proper technique and protective gear, can help reduce the risk of dislocating the elbow. If you suspect that you have dislocated your elbow, seek immediate medical attention for proper diagnosis and treatment.
- Layson J, Best BJ. Elbow Dislocation [Internet]. PubMed. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2023 [cited 2023 Jun 18]. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK549817/#:~:text=Dislocations%20may%20be%20isolated%2C%20involve
- Reichert ILH, Ganeshamoorthy S, Aggarwal S, Arya A, Sinha J. Dislocations of the elbow – An instructional review. Journal of Clinical Orthopaedics and Trauma. 2021 Oct;21:101484. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8321949/