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What is Elbow Dislocation?


The arm in the human body is made up of three bones that join to form a hinge joint called the elbow.  The upper arm bone or humerus connects from the shoulder to the elbow to form the top of the hinge joint.  The lower arm or forearm consists of two bones, the radius, and the ulna.  These bones connect the wrist to the elbow forming the bottom portion of the hinge joint.

The bones are held together by ligaments to provide stability to the joint.  Muscles and tendons move the bones around each other and help in performing various activities. Elbow dislocation occurs when the bones that make up the joint are forced out of alignment. 

Causes of Elbow Dislocation

Elbow dislocations usually occur when you fall onto an outstretched hand.  It can also occur from a traumatic injury such as a motor vehicle accident. 

Symptoms of Elbow Dislocation

When the elbow is dislocated, you may experience severe pain, swelling and lack the ability to bend your arm.  Sometimes, you cannot feel your hand or may have no pulse in your wrist because arteries and nerves that run along your elbow may be injured.

Diagnosis of Elbow Dislocation

To diagnose an elbow dislocation, you will undergo a complete examination your arm.  Dr. Southard will check the pulses at the wrist and evaluate the circulation to the arm.  An X-ray is often necessary to determine the direction of the dislocation and also to evaluate for any fractures (breaks) in the bone.  More advanced studies to evaluate the bones, soft tissue or vasculature may be obtained based on the degree of your injury. 

Treatment Options for Elbow Dislocation

An elbow dislocation is a serious injury and requires immediate medical attention. 

Things You can do at Home when you have an Elbow Dislocation 

At home, you may apply an ice pack to the elbow to ease pain and swelling.  Additionally, you should support the injured arm with a sling or homemade support.  Many people choose to use triangular bandages or sheets to tie up their arm.  It is important to rest the forearm and elbow in the position most comfortable, and less than 90 degrees which is accomplished by having your hand closer to the floor than to your shoulder.  Most importantly, seek medically attention immediately.  Do not waste time diagnosing or evaluating the injury, as the sooner you seek care, the sooner the elbow can be reduced to normal.

What your Doctor Does to Treat an Elbow Dislocation

Prior to visiting us, you likely will have had a doctor put your dislocated elbow back in place by performing special maneuvers, often with the help of a sedative.  This procedure is known as a reduction.  As this can be a painful procedure you may be given medications to relieve your pain before the procedure.  After the reduction, additional imaging studies or tests may be performed and you will have to wear a splint to immobilize your arm at the elbow.  After a few days, you may also need to perform gentle motion exercises to improve the range of motion and strength.

  • American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons
  • American Shoulder and Elbow Surgeons
  • Orthopaedic Trauma Association
  • Weill Cornell Medicine
  • AANA Advancing the Scope