A dislocated elbow is a painful injury that requires medical treatment. With treatment, you should be able to restore function and range of motion to the arm.

A dislocated elbow occurs when the bones in the elbow become separated and pushed out of alignment within the elbow joint.

Elbow dislocations can be complete or partial. With a complete elbow dislocation, the surfaces of the joint become completely separated from each other. With a partial dislocation, also known as subluxation, the joint surfaces become partly separated from each other.

Read on to learn about the symptoms and causes of dislocated elbow, the diagnostic process, and treatment options.

Person with sore elbowShare on Pinterest
Hiraman/Getty Images

Any of these symptoms may indicate a dislocated elbow:

  • pain or tenderness
  • inability to use the arm without pain, or bend the elbow easily
  • misshapen appearance
  • bruising
  • swelling

Complete elbow dislocations can be very painful. This condition also alters the shape of the elbow. In some instances, a dislocated elbow may appear twisted.

Partial elbow dislocations are also painful, but less likely to noticeably affect the appearance of the elbow. In some instances, the bones of a partially dislocated elbow may automatically realign themselves into their right position, at least temporarily.

Stretched or torn ligaments often accompany both types of elbow dislocations. Ligament damage causes obvious bruising, which may be visible on the inside or outside of the elbow. You may also experience weakness or numbness of the elbow or vascular injury.

Falls are the most common cause of dislocated elbows. When your arm and hand hit the ground, the force of the fall travels up into the elbow, twisting it. This can pull the elbow out of its socket. The force of a fall and the resulting impact determine the severity of the injury.

Car accidents and sports injuries may also cause this type of injury. In these instances, your elbow may become dislocated if you brace yourself for impact by reaching forward toward a hard object, such as the ground or car dashboard, with an outstretched arm.

While less common, a dislocated elbow may result from having loose structures within the joint itself. Overuse of the arm from repetitive motion activities can loosen the ligaments and tendons in the elbow, reducing stability. A less-stable joint is more prone to dislocation than a stable one.

Injuries resulting from elbow overuse are likely to be less severe than those resulting from accidents. However, they can still be painful.

It’s a good idea to see a healthcare professional anytime a traumatic fall or accident occurs, especially if you have pain or other concerning symptoms.

If you think you may have dislocated your elbow and have significant pain or swelling, call your healthcare professional, or go to an emergency medical facility.

A medical professional can diagnose and treat a dislocation and alleviate your discomfort. They can also check for artery, blood vessel, or nerve damage that may have occurred within the arm or hand. These types of injuries sometimes accompany elbow dislocations.

It’s important to receive treatment as soon as possible if you’re experiencing any of the symptoms noted above. Left untreated, a dislocated elbow can lead to permanent damage to your elbow.

A healthcare professional will give you a physical examination and ask about your medical history, including a history of falls. They’ll check your arm for areas of tenderness, pain, and bruising. They’ll also assess the way your elbow looks to see if the shape has been affected.

To get a definitive diagnosis, you’ll need at least one type of imaging test. Imaging tests can provide information about injuries to the elbow’s bones, ligaments, and tendons. They can also pinpoint the direction of the dislocation.

The most commonly used imaging test to help in the diagnosis of a dislocated elbow is an X-ray. X-rays are valuable for assessing bone damage. However, they can’t provide images of:

  • tendons
  • ligaments
  • arteries
  • blood vessels

To see these internal structures, a computed tomography (CT) scan or magnetic resonance imaging test (MRI) may be recommended, in addition to an X-ray.

The goal of treatment is to stabilize the elbow, and restore function and range of motion to the arm. The type of treatment recommended will be determined by the extent of the injury.

As a first line of treatment, your healthcare professional may try to put your elbow back into its normal alignment through a procedure known as the reduction maneuver. You may be given pain medication or sedation before the reduction maneuver is done.

If the bones of your elbow can be set and realigned manually, you’ll be sent home with your arm in a splint or sling. This will keep your arm immobile so the elbow has a chance to heal. Splints may be worn for 1 to 3 weeks.

If the dislocation was severe or accompanied by other injuries, such as bone fractures or torn ligaments, elbow surgery may be needed. Your healthcare professional will discuss your surgery options with you.

During the early days of recuperation, you may use ice on your elbow to reduce swelling. Place an ice pack or cold pack on the joint for 10 to 20 minutes at a time, every 1 to 2 hours, for the first 3 days.

Elevating your elbow can also help reduce swelling.

Discuss the use of anti-inflammatory medication with your doctor. These medications may help alleviate swelling, inflammation, and discomfort.

Physical therapy will be an important part of your recovery. Easy motion exercises can help you regain range of motion, plus strengthen the elbow. Discuss your physical therapy options with your doctor.

Too much motion after a dislocation can cause the dislocation to recur, but too little motion can lead to elbow stiffness. That’s why it’s important to work with a physician and physical therapist as part of your recovery.

You may feel pain or discomfort at various points during the recovery process. If so, ask your doctor if they recommend over-the-counter or prescription pain medication.

Is a dislocated elbow serious?

Dislocated elbows are considered medical emergencies. While not life threatening, an uncorrected elbow dislocation can significantly hamper your ability to function, plus cause significant, ongoing pain.

Can a dislocated elbow heal without treatment?

In some instances, the bones in a dislocated elbow may “right” themselves and go back into their proper position. However, future dislocations may occur. If you think you had a dislocation that fixed itself, see your healthcare professional to avoid future problems with the joint.

How long until I can return to my regular activities?

The healing process varies by individual. Your age, overall health, and the severity of the injury will all play a role. The best way to get back to the activities you enjoy is by following your doctor’s instructions. Make sure to keep up with physical therapy for as long as prescribed, or longer.

Most people who have dislocated elbows fully recover, though you may have lasting stiffness or decreased range of motion. Partial elbow dislocations typically heal completely over time. So do many complete elbow dislocations.

If you had a complicated injury that required extensive surgical repair, your elbow may not regain its full range of motion. However, most people are able to function normally, even with less arm mobility.

If surgery isn’t able to fully realign the bones in the joint, you may have an increased risk for arthritis in the elbow later on. Continuing interventions, including physical therapy, may be very beneficial for alleviating the discomfort of elbow arthritis.