Elbow fractures are a fairly common arm injury, especially among kids. Like other fractures, severe or complex elbow fractures typically need surgery to rebuild the joint and preserve its function. But what about milder fractures? Do they need surgery, too? The answer is: Not always.
Caring for patients in Toms River, Shrewsbury, and Wall Township, New Jersey, David B. Dickerson, MD, and Shawn Denning, DNP, offer patient-centered treatment for elbow fractures, including both surgical and nonsurgical options. In this post, learn when an elbow fracture needs surgery and when more conservative therapies might be better.
Elbow anatomy 101
Your elbow comprises three bones: the upper arm bone (the humerus) and two lower arm bones (the ulna and the radius). The bony tip or point of the elbow is the end of the ulna. Any of these bones can fracture, typically from a fall, car accident, sports injury, or other direct impact.
Elbow fractures can cause a lot of pain, but that’s not the only symptom to look for. Other symptoms include:
- Bruising, often beyond the elbow
- Deformity in the elbow joint
- Pain when moving the elbow or arm
- Numbness in your elbow, forearm, or fingers
- Tenderness when the joint is touched
- Feeling of weakness or instability in the joint
Any of these symptoms signal a need for a medical evaluation.
To a large degree, elbow fracture treatment depends on which bones are involved and the fracture's type or severity. X-rays, other imaging tests, and an in-depth physical exam provide vital information that can help Dr. Dickerson recommend the optimal treatment for you.
Conservative treatment vs. surgery
One of the first considerations in determining treatment is whether or not the fracture is displaced. In a displaced fracture, the ends of the broken bones don’t align properly. Non-displaced fractures remain aligned despite the injury.
If you have a non-displaced elbow fracture, there’s a good chance it will recover with conservative treatment, like:
- Casting or splinting
- Use of a sling
- Elevation to reduce swelling
- Ice therapy
- Medication to relieve pain and inflammation
People with non-displaced fractures benefit from physical therapy to help promote healing and restore normal function to the joint and the bones, ligaments, and tendons that support it.
Displaced fractures usually require surgery to realign the bones and stabilize the joint. Once again, the type of surgery depends on the type and severity of the fracture. Some surgeries use pins and plates to join bones while they heal, while others use external fixation devices. Surgery can also repair damaged tendons or ligaments.
As with non-displaced fractures, displaced fractures benefit from physical therapy once healing is well underway and after the bones have “knitted” together. Physical therapy focuses on restoring normal joint function while strengthening support structures to help prevent joint weakness and injuries in the future.
Don’t ignore elbow pain
Everybody hits their elbow from time to time, and we’re all familiar with the “funny-bone” sensation that often follows an elbow impact. But elbow fractures are serious injuries that won’t go away on their own — and without prompt treatment, they can result in permanent disability.
If you have unexplained elbow pain or think you have an elbow fracture, don’t ignore it. Call 732-691-4898 to request an appointment with Performance Orthopaedics and Sports Medicine today.