Treatment for elbow fractures depends on the severity of the injury. There are both surgical and non-surgical treatment options.

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An elbow fracture can occur for various reasons, including a fall, direct impact to the elbow, or overuse. The severity of the injury can vary from a minor hairline fracture to a complete break in the bone. The treatment plan will ultimately depend on the medical diagnosis.

Surgery may be needed in some, but not all, cases. Read on to learn about the nonsurgical and surgical treatment options.

Nonsurgical treatment options for elbow fractures depend on the fracture type, location, and severity of the injury. In general, nonsurgical options are most effective for stable, non-displaced fractures that are less severe.

A non-displaced fracture means that your bone has broken, but the pieces of the bone still line up correctly.

Nonsurgical treatment options usually involve:

  • rest
  • immobilization of the elbow using a cast, brace, or sling
  • physical therapy
  • over-the-counter pain relievers, such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen, to reduce inflammation and pain

Immobilizing the elbow allows the bone to heal properly and may help prevent further damage or injury. You may need to use a splint or sling for several weeks.

What to do if you suspect an elbow fracture

If you suspect an elbow fracture, don’t try treating it on your own. Instead, seek medical attention as quickly as possible. Go to an emergency room or urgent care center, or call a doctor for advice.

Common symptoms of an elbow fracture include:

  • visual changes to the elbow, such as bruising and swelling
  • inability to move the joint
  • pain
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Surgical treatment options are primarily used in cases of displaced elbow fractures. That means the bone fragments were moved out of alignment during or following the injury. In these situations, you may need orthopedic surgery to reposition the bones back into alignment to heal properly.

Surgical treatment options may include:

Open reduction and internal fixation (ORIF)

ORIF is a type of surgery used to stabilize and heal a broken bone. During this procedure, the surgeon will make an incision in your arm to realign the fractured bone. They will then use hardware, such as screws, plates, or wires, to hold the bones in place while they heal.

Total elbow replacement

In cases where the damage to the joint is severe, a total elbow replacement may be necessary. During this procedure, the damaged joint, in this case, the elbow, is replaced with an artificial one.

Radial head replacement

Similar to a total elbow replacement, the radial head bone may be replaced with an artificial radial head if the bone is fractured into too many pieces to be able to fix. The radius is next to the elbow bone, and the bones are connected through the radial head, which is a bulbous part at the end of the radius.

Ulnar nerve transposition

A possible complication of an elbow fracture may include injury of the ulnar nerve. If this occurs, the nerve may need to be surgically repositioned to relieve pressure on the nerve.

The time it takes to recover will depend on your treatment plan and the severity of your injury. It’s important to always talk with the doctor about what to expect from recovery.

In general, recovery from a simple fracture may take a couple of months.

If you have a more severe injury, it may take up to a year to fully recover, depending on your treatment plan and the severity of the break.

Following the doctor’s instructions and attending all follow-up appointments is important. During follow-up appointments, your doctor will monitor your progress and adjust your recovery plan, if needed.

During your recovery, avoid activities that could cause further damage or stress to the healing elbow. The specific activities can vary depending on the initial injury, but in general, you should avoid:

  • contact sports
  • lifting or carrying heavy objects
  • high impact activities, such as running or jumping, that could place stress on the elbow
  • activities that require gripping or twisting, such as opening jars or using tools that require hand and arm strength

What’s the long-term outlook?

Following treatment for an elbow fracture, some residual stiffness, weakness, or limitations in your usual range of motion may be present. However, with proper rehabilitation, these symptoms should diminish over time. Most people can expect to make a full recovery.

Will I need physical therapy?

After the fractured bone has healed enough, your doctor may recommend physical therapy to help you regain strength and flexibility, and improve the range of motion in the elbow.

Physical therapy following an elbow fracture may include the following:

  • range of motion exercises, including stretching
  • strengthening exercises to rebuild muscles around the elbow joint
  • manual therapy, including tissue mobilization and massage
  • functional training that simulates everyday tasks

It’s important to ask your doctor any questions you may have before treatment and during your follow-up appointments. Here are some questions you may want to consider asking:

  • Why is this particular treatment recommended for my injury?
  • Are there any potential risks and complications associated with this type of treatment?
  • What should I expect during the recovery period, and how long is the expected recovery time?
  • What restrictions or limitations should I follow during the recovery period? Is there a limit to how much weight I can carry with the injured elbow?
  • What signs or symptoms should I watch for that may indicate a problem with my healing or recovery?
  • How do I prevent infection?
  • Are there any lifestyle changes you would recommend to prevent future injury?

An elbow fracture should be diagnosed and treated by a medical professional. Depending on the severity of the injury, nonsurgical and surgical options exist to help repair the broken bone.

Although the type of fracture can range from minor to severe, with proper treatment and rehabilitation, most people can expect to fully recover.