The elbow is a joint composed of ligaments, cartilage, and bone. A broken elbow is a break in the end of one of the bones at this joint. Treatment usually includes an X-ray to confirm the fracture, ice, casting, and sometimes surgery.
The three bones that meet at the elbow are the humerus, radius, and ulna. The humerus is the bone in the upper arm. The radius and ulna are the bones of the forearm. Any of those bones can be broken near the elbow joint.
Symptoms of a broken elbow may include severe pain, swelling, bruising, tenderness, and numbness of the fingers. It may be difficult to extend the arm at the elbow, and moving the joint will probably be very painful.
As soon as possible after the injury, place ice on the elbow joint. This will help to decrease inflammation and control pain. Ice should be applied for 20 minutes then removed for 20 minutes, since leaving it on for too long can result in frostbite.
If a break is suspected, you should seek medical attention. An X-ray is generally used to verify that one of the bones is actually fractured. Breaks in the end of the humerus near the elbow are more common in children than in adults. The most common break is to the part of the ulna that cradles the end of the humerus.
When a broken bone is confirmed, the treatment will be based on the location and severity of the break. Fractures of the ulna can occasionally be treated with a splint or a sling to immobilize the joint, but most will require casting to heal properly. Any movement within the joint may require surgery to put the bone back together.
A fracture that is displaced, or out of alignment, will need surgical intervention so that the elbow can heal properly and bend and straighten after it's healed. If bone fragments cut through the skin, a operation will be required to thoroughly clean the area and to fix the fracture. Pins, screws, plates, or stitches may be used to hold the bone together. After surgery, a splint or cast will likely be needed to keep the arm immobile during healing.
After surgery, a patient may require physical therapy to regain an optimal range of motion in the elbow. The patient may not be able to straighten the joint fully. Doing physical therapy and performing the recommended exercises at home will improve healing time and increase the potential for a full recovery.