A radial head fracture is break in the part of the elbow at the end of the lower arm bone. The break may be just a bend or small crack in the bone, or the bone may break into pieces or shatter. Some fractures may stick out through the skin.
What is the cause?
A broken elbow is usually caused by a fall or a direct hit to the elbow. A fracture may also be the result of a medical condition that causes weak or brittle bones.
What are the symptoms?
Symptoms may include:
Pain, swelling, bruising, or tenderness that happens right after the injury, usually on the thumb side of the elbow
Pain when the injured area is touched
Pain or swelling that keeps you from bending or using your arm
An area of the elbow or forearm that is cold, pale, or numb
A change in the shape of the elbow
How is it diagnosed?
Your healthcare provider will ask about your symptoms and how the injury happened. Your provider will examine you. Tests may include:
X-rays of the elbow
CT scan, which uses X-rays and a computer to show detailed pictures of the bones
MRI, which uses a strong magnetic field and radio waves to show detailed pictures of the bones
How is it treated?
The treatment depends on the type of fracture.
If you have an open wound with the fracture, you may need treatment to control bleeding or prevent infection.
For some simple types of fracture, you may just need to wear a sling or a splint for a few days to keep your elbow from moving while it heals.
For a more severe fracture, you will need to keep your arm from moving for a longer time and you may need a cast. If you have a cast, make sure the cast does not get wet. Cover the cast with plastic when you bathe. Avoid scratching the skin around the cast or poking things down between the cast and your skin. This could cause an infection.
Sometimes surgery is needed to put the bones back into the right position.
With treatment, the fracture may take up to several months to heal. You may need to do special exercises to help your arm get stronger and more flexible. Ask your healthcare provider about this.
How can I take care of myself?
Follow the full course of treatment your healthcare provider prescribes. Also:
To keep swelling down and help relieve pain, your healthcare provider may tell you to:
Put an ice pack, gel pack, or package of frozen vegetables wrapped in a cloth on the injured area every 3 to 4 hours for up to 20 minutes at a time for the first day or two after the injury.
Keep the arm up on pillows when you sit or lie down.
Take pain medicine, such as ibuprofen, as directed by your provider. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medicines (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen, may cause stomach bleeding and other problems. These risks increase with age. Read the label and take as directed. Unless recommended by your healthcare provider, you should not take this medicine for more than 10 days.
Ask your healthcare provider:
How and when you will hear your test results
How long it will take to recover
What activities you should avoid and when you can return to your normal activities
How to take care of yourself at home
What symptoms or problems you should watch for and what to do if you have them
Make sure you know when you should come back for a checkup.
How can I help prevent a broken elbow?
Most broken elbows are caused by accidents that are not easy to prevent. Be careful when you walk or exercise. Knee pads, elbow pads, and a helmet can help prevent injuries during activities like biking, rollerblading, or skateboarding.
Developed by RelayHealth.
Adult Advisor 2015.1 published by RelayHealth. Last modified: 2014-02-01 Last reviewed: 2014-01-23
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Elbow Fracture: Radial Head: References
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Greene, Walter B., M.D., Griffin, Letha Y. (Ed), Essentials of Musculoskeletal Care, 4th ed. Amer Academy of Orthopaedic. 2010.
Kisner, Carol, and Lynn Colby, Therapeutic Exercise: Foundations and Techniques, F. A. Davis Company; 6th ed, 2012.
Mellion, Morris B., W. Michael Walsh, Christopher Madden, Margot Putukian, and Guy L. Shelton, The Team Physician’s Handbook, Hanley & Belfus; 3 ed, 2001.
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