A dislocated elbow occurs when the bones that make up the joint are forced out of alignment — typically when you land on an outstretched hand during a fall. The elbow is the second most commonly dislocated joint after the shoulder in adults, and the most commonly dislocated joint in children.
Toddlers may experience a dislocated elbow, sometimes known as nursemaid’s elbow, if they are lifted or swung by their forearms.
If you or your child has a dislocated elbow, seek immediate medical attention. Complications can occur if the dislocated elbow pinches or traps the blood vessels and the nerves that serve the lower arm and hand.
A dislocated elbow can usually be realigned without surgery. However, if your elbow is also fractured, you might need surgery.
Obvious distortion of the joint
Toddlers with nursemaid’s elbow might experience pain only when the affected elbow is moved. A child often avoids using the arm and holds it slightly flexed next to the body.
Sometimes, the elbow is only partially dislocated. Partial dislocation can cause bruising and pain where the ligaments were stretched or torn.
In adults, the most common causes of a dislocated elbow include:
Falls. Falling onto an outstretched hand can pop the upper arm bone out of alignment within the elbow joint.
Motor vehicle accidents. The same type of impact can occur when passengers in motor vehicle accidents reach forward to brace themselves before a collision.
In children or teenagers, falling onto an outstretched hand is also a common cause of a dislocated elbow.
In toddlers, the injury often occurs when an extra pulling motion is applied to an outstretched arm. The causes of such injuries include:
Improper lifting. Trying to lift or swing a young child by the arms can cause the elbow to dislocate.
Sudden pulling. Having the child suddenly step off a curb or stairstep as you’re holding his or her hand can pull the elbow out of alignment.
Some dislocated elbows go back into place by themselves. Most, however, need a doctor to manipulate the bones back into their proper alignment. This procedure is called a reduction.
Before the reduction you or your child may be given medications to relieve pain and relax muscles.
After the joint’s bones are back in their normal alignment, you or your child might need to wear a splint or sling for a few weeks. You might also need to do physical therapy exercises to improve the joint’s range of motion and strength.
You might need surgery if:
Any of the dislocated bones have also been broken
Torn ligaments need to be reattached
Damaged nerves or blood vessels need repair
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