Let’s clarify some vocabulary first. The words “fracture” and “broken” mean the same thing to your doctor. There is sometimes some confusion with this. To some people “fracture” sounds worse. To others it’s just the opposite. But they are essentially equivalent.
If you have a broken elbow, what you want to know is, how bad is it and what do you have to do to fix it?
As a patient, the first thing you have to figure out is whether your elbow is broken at all.
Most people’s first encounter with a health professional after a break is the emergency room. Depending on the emergency room that you visit, they may have a lot of experience seeing elbow fractures or they may have very little. Also, some fractures are difficult to see on x ray, so clinicians rely on “indirect” signs such as swelling. Others are obvious.
Common elbow fracture patterns
Like shoulder fractures, elbow fractures come in a wide array of patterns and treatment should be tailored accordingly. There are some elbow fractures that are more common. Radial head fractures for example often occur when someone falls onto an outstretched hand and “jams” their arm into the ground. The radial head is a disk–like structure at the near part of the radius. Luckily many of these fractures are “simple” and “stable.” Simple means that they happened without a dislocation. Stable means that they are line up well and can be treated without an operation.
Other elbow fractures are relatively more rare. This means that the average orthopedic surgeon sees less of them in his or her daily practice. And unfortunately these types of fractures are usually more complex. Imagine going to a mechanic that fixes 10 mufflers per week but only fixes one transmission every 3 months. Now imagine that the average transmission fix is far more complex than the average muffler fix. Now you have a better understanding of the challenge of treating many elbow fractures.
Fractures around the elbow can be unforgiving and demand a delicate balance between stability and motion in order to treat them properly. Sacrificing one or the other will often lead to a poor result. This is because fractures like immobilization, but soft tissues – muscle, ligament, capsule- DO NOT. With prolonged immobilization soft tissues stiffen and ultimately reduce your range of motion.
This is why it is sometimes better to operate and place plates and screws around an elbow fracture to stabilize it promptly. A well performed, stable fixation can permit you to move your elbow relatively quickly after surgery and prevent profound stiffness.
Expect stiffness after elbow fracture
A word of caution, some stiffness is nearly always expected after any elbow fracture or bad elbow injury. But the goal of a proper treatment program should be to reduce this as much as possible. Elbow fractures are some of the most complex fractures that orthopedic surgeons handle. The elbow joint is complex in shape and demands precision to fix appropriately.