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Symptoms and Signs of Broken Elbow

Doctor's Notes on Broken Elbow

A broken elbow is a fracture, or break, of any of the three bones of the elbow. The elbow joint involves the upper arm bone (humerus) as well as the two bones of the lower arm (tibia and fibula). A broken elbow is most commonly caused by traumatic injuries such as falls, motor vehicle accidents, cycling accidents, or direct blows to the elbow.

Signs and symptoms of a broken elbow include pain that may be severe, reduced ability to move the elbow joint, swelling, and deformity of the elbow. Other associated symptoms can include redness or bruising of the skin, decreased sensation of the forearm, numbness of the arm, a cool sensation in the arm, and bleeding, scrapes, cuts, or open wounds at the site of the fracture.

Medical Author:
Medically Reviewed on 3/11/2019

Broken Elbow Symptoms

If the elbow shows any of the following signs, a person may have a fracture, sprained elbow, or another injury that needs medical attention:

  • Swelling of the elbow or in the area immediately above or below the elbow
  • Deformity of the elbow or the areas near the elbow
  • Discoloration, bruising, or redness of the elbow
  • Difficulty moving the elbow through its complete range of motion
    • Flexion and extension: Individuals should be able to bend their elbow so that they can touch the shoulder with the fingertips. Patients also should be able to fully straighten their arm. If they cannot do this, it may be a sign of a supracondylar fracture.
    • Inward and outward rotation: When holding the upper arm at the side with the elbow flexed (bent) at 90 degrees, people should be able to rotate their hand outward so that the palm faces the ceiling. In this same position, a person should be able to rotate his or her hand inward so that the palm faces the floor. If the person cannot do this, it may be a sign of a radial head fracture.
  • Numbness decreased sensation, or a cool sensation of the forearm, hand, or fingers
    • Three major nerves, 1) the median, 2) radial, and 3) ulnar nerves travel through the elbow. A serious injury may damage one or more of these nerves.
    • Many blood vessels also pass through the elbow. These important vessels may become injured or compressed when trauma or swelling occurs in the elbow.
  • A cut, or open wound, on the elbow after a traumatic injury
  • Severe pain after an elbow injury
  • A "tight sensation" in the area of the elbow or forearm

Broken Elbow Causes

People can injure an elbow in a variety of ways, from overuse (athletic injuries) to an acute traumatic event (a fall or direct blow). Some common events that result in elbow fractures:

  • Falling backward, for example, off a skateboard, the person may attempt to brace the fall with an arm outstretched and open hand.
  • High-energy trauma can occur in an automobile or motorcycle collision.
  • A direct blow on the elbow can cause a break, such as when a person falls off a bicycle and lands directly on an elbow.
  • Sideswipe injury occurs when an elbow is struck while a person is resting an elbow out an open car window.
  • Any other direct injury to the elbow, wrist, hand, or shoulder can fracture the elbow.

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REFERENCE:

Kasper, D.L., et al., eds. Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, 19th Ed. United States: McGraw-Hill Education, 2015.

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