Dislocated Elbow: What You Need to Know
A dislocated elbow occurs when the bones that form the elbow joint are displaced from their normal position. Although this rare injury affects less than one percent of the general population, it’s the second most frequent site of dislocations. Shoulder dislocations are first. The important thing for athletes and coaches to remember is that a dislocated elbow requires medical attention as soon as possible. This isn't a do-it-yourself situation.
The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons classifies elbow dislocations into simple and complex categories. In a simple dislocation, there is no major bone injury. A complex dislocation may involve severe damage to the bones, ligaments, and blood vessels in the area.
Elbow dislocations are also divided into partial and complete classifications. A partial dislocation, also called a subluxation, means the joint surfaces in the elbow are partially separated. In some cases, the joint moves back into place on its own, even though there is none visible damage. In a complete dislocation, the surfaces of the joint are completely separated.
How a Dislocated Elbow Happens
An athlete typically dislocates an elbow when he or she breaks a fall by extending an arm. When the hand hits the surface, the force shoots up to the elbow and drives the elbow out of its socket. A classic example of how a dislocated elbow occurs is when a gymnast or football player falls (or gets knocked down, in the case of football), sticks the arm out, and tries to absorb the shock. Unless the arm is bent, a dislocated elbow is a possibility.
Dislocated Elbow by the Numbers
The number of medical professionals usually needed to put a dislocated elbow back into its proper position.
6 – 13
The number of elbow dislocations per 100,000 people.
10 – 50
The percent of elbow dislocations that are sports-related.
Who’s at Risk of a Dislocated Elbow
Athletes who fall frequently are at a higher-than-normal risk of suffering a dislocated elbow. Examples include gymnasts, football players, jumpers, and weight lifters. Children and adolescents are more likely to experience a dislocated elbow than adults.
- Severe pain
- Swelling, bruising
- Deformed appearance of the elbow
- Loss of feeling in the hand
- No apparent pulse in the wrist (in some cases)
Get medical help immediately. A dislocated elbow is a medical emergency. It isn’t an injury that can be managed by first aid. To help minimize swelling, apply ice to the area while on the way to the hospital.
Your doctor will probably keep the elbow immobile with a splint or sling for two or three weeks. Your physical therapist will begin the rehab process with range of motion and strengthening exercises. Here are some examples (to be performed by a licensed physical therapist only):
- Joint Mobilizations to the elbow joint
- Soft tissue massage
- Strengthening exercises (based upon the extent of damage from the dislocation (i.e., if there are associated fractures, nerve/blood supply damage, muscle/tendon/ligament damage, etc.).
How to Prevent a Dislocated Elbow
There is only one way to prevent a dislocated elbow. Don’t fall on a straight, outstretched arm. If you can react quickly, make contact with the surface with a bent elbow or by rolling into a fall rather than hitting the ground in a position that allows maximum impact to the elbow.
Jim Brown, Ph.D. has written 14 books on health, medicine, and sports. His articles have appeared in the Washington Post, New York Post, Sports Illustrated for Women and Better Homes & Gardens. He also writes for the Duke School of Medicine, UCLA School of Medicine, Cleveland Clinic and Steadman-Hawkins Research Foundation.
- Jennifer Lewis, PT, DPT, ATC, Performance Physical Therapist, Athletes’ Performance, Phoenix, Ariz.
- American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons
- Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center
- University of Michigan Health System