The elbow is a junction between the forearm and the upper arm. The elbow joint is made up of 3 bones, namely the humerus in the upper arm which articulates with the radius and ulna in the forearm. The elbow joint is essential for the movement of your arms and to perform daily activities. The head of the radius bone is cup-shaped and articulates with the ball-shaped prominence of the humerus. An injury to the head of the radius causes impairment in the function of the elbow. Radial head fractures are caused while breaking a fall with an outstretched arm, and can also occur as a result of a direct impact on the elbow.
Elbow dislocations are generally associated with radial head fractures. The symptoms include severe pain on the outside of the elbow, swelling in the elbow, difficulty in moving the arm, visible deformity indicating dislocation, bruising and stiffness.
Your doctor will order an X-ray to confirm the fracture and assess displacement of the bone. Sometimes, your doctor may order a CT scan to obtain further details of the fracture.
The treatment of a fracture depends on the type of fracture.
- Type 1 fractures are small cracks in the bone that remain fitted together. Your doctor may treat these fractures with a splint to fix the bone, and sling for a few days. This is followed by gradually moving your arm.
- Type 2 fractures are characterized by displacement of the bones and breaking of bones in large pieces. Minor displacements are treated with a splint and sling. In more severe cases, surgery is recommended to repair soft-tissue injuries, and insert screws and plates to hold the displaced bones together (internal fixation). Small pieces of bone may be removed if it prevents normal movement of the elbow.
- Type 3 fractures are characterized by multiple broken pieces of bone. Surgery is the first line treatment considered to remove and fix the broken bones. The radius head may need to be replaced with an artificial component to improve the function of the elbow.