A dislocated elbow occurs when the bones that make up the joint are forced out of alignment — typically when a person lands on an outstretched hand during a fall.
Toddlers may experience a dislocated elbow, sometimes known as nursemaid's elbow, if they are lifted or swung by their forearms.
If you or your child has a dislocated elbow, seek immediate medical attention. Complications can occur if the dislocated elbow pinches or traps the blood vessels and nerves that serve the lower arm and hand.
In most cases, a dislocated elbow can be realigned without surgery. However, the impact that caused the elbow to dislocate also can cause bone fractures within the joint, so surgical repair may be necessary.
Signs and symptoms of a dislocated elbow commonly include:
In some cases, the elbow may be only partially dislocated, which can cause bruising and pain where the ligaments were stretched or torn.
When to see a doctor
In adults, the most common causes of a dislocated elbow include:
In young children, the injury often occurs when an extra pulling motion is applied to an outstretched arm. Examples include:
Complications of a dislocated elbow may include:
Preparing for your appointment
If you or your child has a dislocated elbow, you'll probably seek medical attention in a hospital's emergency department or at an urgent care center. If the injury involves broken bones, you may be referred to an orthopedic surgeon.
What to expect from your doctor
Tests and diagnosis
Your doctor will carefully examine the injured joint and check to see if the arm or hand is cold or numb, which would indicate entrapment of an artery or nerve. He or she will probably try to maneuver the bones back into place after looking at X-rays to make sure there are no broken bones in the joint.
Treatments and drugs
Some dislocated elbows go back into place by themselves. Most, however, need a doctor to manipulate the bones back into their proper alignment. This procedure is called a reduction.
Avoid lifting or swinging small children by their arms.
Last Updated: 2012-06-05
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