For adults, the shoulder is the most common site for a dislocation, but the elbow comes in a close second. For children, elbows are the number one dislocation site, and about half of pediatric elbow dislocations are related to sports injuries.
While there are many conditions that lead to elbow pain, elbow dislocation has some unique symptoms and treatments. If you dislocate your elbow, you want the best orthopedic specialist available to restore full, pain-free elbow function.
As the former team physician for the Chicago Bulls and the Chicago White Sox, Neil Ghodadra, MD, located in Los Angeles and Thousand Oaks, California, has seen — and treated — his fair share of dislocated elbows. Here, he discusses the causes of and treatments for a dislocated elbow and how you can ensure a full recovery.
The elbow: A multifunctional and vulnerable joint
Your elbow is the meeting place of three bones: the bottom of your humerus, and the tops of your ulna and radius. While most joints are either a ball-and-socket joint (like your shoulder) or a hinge joint (like your knuckles), your elbow is both. This jack of all trades allows you to both bend and twist your arm.
Unfortunately, this amazing multifunctionality makes your elbow vulnerable to dislocations when excessive force displaces the bones.
Inside an elbow dislocation
Most elbow dislocations occur in a fall or a car accident, when the hands are thrown forward to brace for impact: The force slams into the elbow joint and moves the structures out of position. But the bones aren’t the only part of your anatomy that’s affected.
Your joint is held together with the help of ligaments, muscles, and bone surfaces, so there’s potential for damage to any or all of these elements.
In a simple dislocation, the bones are misaligned, but you sustain no other damage. In a complex dislocation, however, the bones and ligaments are injured as well as dislocated, and you may also have blood vessel and nerve damage, too.
Partial elbow dislocation
In a relatively mild form of the injury called a partial elbow dislocation, the surfaces of your bones only partly separated. Also called subluxation, a partial elbow dislocation causes pain, but it generally doesn’t prevent use of the joint. The ligaments may have been stretched or torn, which leads to bruising, but your elbow may spontaneously relocate from time to time and feel better for a while.
Complete elbow dislocation
A complete elbow dislocation is extremely painful and visibly obvious. Your arm will appear deformed and oddly twisted. In this case, the surfaces of your bones have shifted significantly and have likely caused collateral damage to the surrounding tissues. This is a medical emergency that requires immediate care.
Treatment for elbow dislocations
Depending on the severity of your elbow dislocation, Dr. Ghodadra develops a customized treatment plan. If your elbow has not returned to its normal position on its own, Dr. Ghodadra restores the alignment in a manual procedure called a reduction maneuver. Of course, he administers a sedative or pain medication prior to resetting your joint to make sure you don’t feel any discomfort.
For partial dislocations, it’s important to keep your joint immobile for a few weeks while the tissues heal. A splint or sling can keep your elbow stable and supported.
Dr. Ghodadra may recommend anti-inflammatory and/or pain medications to ease your discomfort as your body recovers.
For complete and complex elbow dislocations, Dr. Ghodadra may need to repair the joint surgically. Whenever possible, he uses a minimally invasive technique called arthroscopic surgery to repair the torn ligaments and realign the bones.
Recovering from a dislocated elbow
While your elbow is recovering, you can speed up the process by following all of Dr. Ghodadra’s instructions, which include:
- Keeping your elbow immobile
- Protecting your elbow from bumps and blows
- Icing your elbow to keep inflammation down
- Elevating your elbow
- Participating in physical therapy
Dr. Ghodadra works with you to restore your pre-injury function. If that includes sports, he personalizes your physical therapy to strengthen your elbow so you can avoid repeat injuries when you play.
To get the best care for your dislocated elbow, call NEIL GHODADRA, M.D. at 310-929-4787 and get started on a rehabilitation program that will restore your elbow to its pre-injury health and function.