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Understanding the Three Types of Elbow Fractures

Understanding the Three Types of Elbow Fractures

When most people think of breaking an arm, they think of fractures that happen in the upper arm or lower arm. But your elbow can break, too. In fact, elbow fractures are the most common type of fracture among kids. 

David Dickerson, MD, uses advanced methods for diagnosing and treating elbow fractures at Performance Orthopaedics and Sports Medicine, with locations in Wall Township, Toms River, and Shrewsbury, New Jersey.

Here’s what he wants you to know about the three types of elbow fractures, including how they occur and how they’re treated.

Basic elbow anatomy

Your elbow joint forms at the junction of three bones: your upper arm bone or humerus, and your two lower arm bones, called the radius and the ulna. Three large, strong ligaments (bands of fibrous tissue) hold the joint together. Smaller ligaments and tendons also help your elbow function and stay stable.

The end of the humerus bone is rounded, and it rests securely in a cup-shaped indentation in your ulna bone, called the olecranon. You can feel this junction as the bony “tip” of your elbow. 

The elbow is a weight-bearing joint, able to lift and rotate objects. It also absorbs a lot of the impact when you fall on your hand or your outstretched arm, which is a fairly common cause of elbow fractures.

3 types of elbow fractures

Since three bones make up your joint, it’s probably not surprising that the three main types of elbow fractures involve each of those three bones.

Olecranon fracture

Protected only by a thin layer of tissue, it’s probably not too surprising that olecranon fractures are pretty common. In kids, they’re the most common type of elbow fracture. Olecranon fractures happen when:

Like other fractures, olecranon fractures can involve a single break or multiple breaks.

Sometimes, the olecranon stays in place after a break, in which case, you might be treated with a simple splint to immobilize the area while the bone heals. Often, though, an impact moves the bones out of alignment. In this case, you’ll probably need surgery to restore the joint, followed by a cast to keep the area immobile and stable while it heals.

Olecranon fractures are associated with symptoms like pain, swelling, and problems extending or straightening the elbow.

Radial head fracture

Radial fractures comprise about 20% of all acute elbow injuries. These fractures usually happen when you fall on your outstretched arm, and the force of the fall causes the radius bone to break where it forms the elbow joint.

Like olecranon fractures, the bone may be broken in one place or multiple places. A single, small break where the bone lines up perfectly may be treated with splinting and a sling. If the break is not aligned, or if multiple areas are broken, you’ll need surgery to reconstruct the joint, often with pins or plates.

If you have this type of fracture, you’ll have symptoms like:

With a smaller crack, your symptoms may be very mild.

Distal humerus fracture

Involving the large arm bone, greater force is typically needed to cause these fractures than the force needed to cause the other elbow fractures. For instance, the impact associated with a motor vehicle accident could cause this type of fracture. Falls can also cause distal humerus fractures as can hitting your elbow against another object.

These fractures typically aren’t very common, but they do happen more frequently among older people whose bones may be weaker as a result of decreased bone density. Treatment is similar to other types of fractures and depends on the severity of the fracture.

With distal humerus breaks, you’ll probably have symptoms like pain, swelling, and feelings of instability in your elbow. You may also have pain radiating into the upper part of your arm or your shoulder.

Don’t ignore elbow pain

Elbow fractures are serious injuries, and all types of fracture require immediate medical attention. To find out what’s causing your elbow symptoms, call 732-691-4898 to book an appointment with Performance Orthopaedics and Sports Medicine today.

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