Elbow dislocation is a medical term used to describe a serious injury where the humerus bone of the upper arm and the ulna and radius bones of the lower arm moves out of place at the elbow joint where the three bones meet.
A severe elbow dislocation usually causes a significant amount of pain. Though minor dislocations or subluxations might not be immediately obvious. Though symptoms can still manifest.
A lot of elbow dislocations happen when a person attempts to break their fall with an outstretched hand while the arm is held straight. Though there are certainly other traumatic incidents such as car accidents or sports injuries that can also lead to an elbow dislocation.
It’s also possible for seemingly simple things like overuse and repetitive motions to gradually loosen the important connective tissues that serve to stabilize the elbow joint. As these tendons and ligaments weaken it can increase the risk of a possible elbow dislocation from something like a simple accidental fall.
If you’ve recently suffered trauma to the arm with severe elbow pain, it helps to know the signs and symptoms of elbow dislocation.
Common Symptoms of an Elbow Dislocation
If you’ve recently suffered an elbow or lower arm injury, the following symptoms are common signs of an elbow dislocation.
- Deformity of the joint
- Significant elbow instability
- Elbow weakness
- Elbow pain deep in the joint
- Inability to move your elbow
- Significantly impaired range of motion in the elbow
- Numbness and tingling from the elbow to the lower extremities of the hand
- Swelling, bruising
- Swelling and inflammation in the elbow
How Is an Elbow Dislocation Diagnosed?
An orthopedic specialist is usually required to correctly diagnose an elbow dislocation and severity. This typically requires a referral from your primary care physician. The orthopedic specialist will start with a physical exam of your elbow to test the range of motion and evaluate the severity of your symptoms.
Be sure to let them know about any past elbow or lower arm injuries, as they will need to collect a thorough medical history to diagnose and develop the most effective treatment plan. In a lot of elbow dislocation cases, further imaging tests are needed to assess the severity of the problem. This will also help determine if there are any bone fractures present as well as help assess any potential damage to ligaments and tendons. These imaging tests include:
- CT scan
- Musculoskeletal ultrasound
The musculoskeletal radiologists who perform these imaging diagnostics are experts at interpreting advanced images and carefully reviewing scans. This makes for a highly accurate diagnosis that leads to optimal treatment plans.
How Is a Dislocated Elbow Treated?
With a lot of elbow dislocations, the bones of the radius and/or ulna rises up out of the elbow joint itself. If the deformation is minimal, the elbow joint might be realigned and put back into place without the need for any invasive surgery.
Your physician will recommend nonsurgical techniques to treat symptoms such as pain and swelling. This might include non-invasive treatments such as:
- Immobilizing the elbow joint with a splint
- Activity modification
- A specific Icing strategy for the joint and surrounding musculoskeletal structures
- OTC or prescription pain medications
- OTC or prescription anti-inflammatory medications
- Physical therapy strengthening and stretching exercises
In a case where the elbow dislocation is assessed as a “Complete Dislocation” or there are complications from bone fractures, torn ligaments, tendons, or other compromised connective tissues, your physician might recommend surgical intervention.
Surgical Treatment for Elbow Dislocation
Fortunately, most simple dislocations don’t require invasive surgery. A lot of them are usually easily repaired during an emergency room visit. It’s when fracture and/or torn connective tissues are present, that you will likely need surgery to repair the damage and to reduce the chance of elbow instability.
Elbow dislocation surgery is often needed to properly repair a severe dislocation. It might also need to be performed along with other surgical techniques if repair is needed for bone fractures and torn ligaments and tendons.
Thankfully orthopedic surgeons receive extensive training and experience in performing a wide range of complex surgical treatments to treat one or multiple injuries to the elbow.
This includes surgical techniques for doing things like replacing damaged soft tissues with acellular dermal grafts and patches, as well as grafts. These surgical modalities are often needed to fully restore normal elbow function and strength, while also alleviating the pain that often accompanies an elbow dislocation.
Common Surgical Techniques Used to Treat Elbow Dislocation
Different surgical techniques might be needed to treat an elbow dislocation as well as any surrounding damage to the bones or connective tissues. During these surgical procedures, the orthopedic surgeon will make a small incision in the skin of the affected elbow and insert a very thin, flexible tube with a tiny light and camera at the end. This arthroscope essentially magnifies and illuminates the structures within the elbow. These techniques also allow for quicker recovery times and reduced pain.
Surgical Treatment For Ligament or Tendon Reconstruction in a Dislocated Elbow
A lot of severe elbow dislocations also cause damage to the tendons and ligaments. In these cases, the orthopedic surgeon will perform reconstruction and repair of the connective tissues. This is a necessary procedure to restore the strength and function of the elbow. It can also help to reduce the risk of future dislocations.
Elbow Dislocation Surgical Recovery Process
Recovering from elbow dislocation surgery typically starts with your arm being immobilized in a sling for up to 4 to 6 weeks. This recovery strategy often includes taking anti-inflammatory medications, icing, and elevating the arm to help reduce pain and swelling.
The orthopedic surgeon or your assigned pain management specialist will work with you to begin rehabilitation and physical therapy when you’re ready. The overarching goal is to make you less dependent on narcotics or prevent their use altogether.
Physical Therapy usually starts four to six weeks after surgery. A highly trained physical therapist who specializes in elbow dislocations and other arm surgical recovery techniques will work with you to develop a customized plan unique to your surgery and recovery time.
This typically involves clinical rehabilitation strengthening and stretching techniques. They will then provide you with exercises you can do at home to keep progressing toward full restoration of your elbow just like it was before the dislocation injury.