Elbow dislocations are less common than shoulder dislocations but they occur more frequently than you might think. There are some unique aspects to elbow dislocations, of which you may not be aware.
Before delving deeper, let’s male sure we are on the same page by clarifying some definitions.
A joint is where 2 or more bones come together and form a moving surface. These surfaces are usually covered with cartilage and fit congruently. Dislocation is the word we use to describe an event when the joint surfaces disconnect from one another. This event is often forceful and involves failure of some “soft tissues” such as ligaments or tendons.
Dislocations around the elbow come in 2 varieties: simple and complex.
A simple dislocation is one that occurs without a fracture of the elbow. A complex dislocation involves a fracture around the elbow AND a dislocation. Obviously the latter problem is more involved.
Dislocations are unsettling. They usually don’t go back into place unless you or a medical professional puts them back into place. This may require some medication for relaxation.
Fighting permanent elbow stiffness
After your joint is aligned again, you are not out of the woods. Most emergency room doctors will place you into a splint after they get your elbow back in place. But you can’t stay in this splint for too long.
Immediately after an elbow dislocation, your natural impulse will be to NOT move your elbow. But if you keep it immobile for too long it will get stiff. And that stiffness can be permanent.
While a small amount of stiffness is common after a dislocation, too much can really impact your daily function.
How long can you keep your elbow immobilized?
Children can wear a cast or splint on their elbow for upwards of six weeks. Adults aren’t so lucky. We can only keep our elbows immobilized for a few weeks before we start getting stiffness that may become permanent.
That’s why the first thing I would do as your doctor if I were to see you after an elbow dislocation is to take your splint off. My goal at this point is to check your elbow stability through a range of motion. It’s important for me to understand if your elbow feels unstable in certain parts of the range. If it does, I may restrict your motion in that area.
I may place you into what is called a “hinged elbow brace.” This is an arm brace made of plastic and metal that has a hinge near your elbow joint. It provides some level of protection around your elbow.
If it does not feel unstable at all, and your X-rays are normal appearing I may get you into a therapy program in which we start moving your elbow again. Of course, the motion will be gentle at first. You will have bruising and some pain in the beginning because a dislocation is a traumatic event.
If you have a fracture AND a dislocation your elbow might be more unstable than a “simple” dislocation. Depending on your situation more involved treatment such as surgery may be necessary to stabilize your elbow. Further testing like x-rays and CT scans will help us know that better.
Will your elbow dislocate again?
There are varying degrees of elbow instability. The chance of you dislocating your elbow again really depends on a lot of factors such as how severe your initial injury was, what your treatment and rehabilitation plan is, and whether you encounter any trauma in the future. Every case is unique.
If you have sustained an elbow dislocation and are seeking a treatment plan that will help you restore the motion and stability of your elbow please call us for a personal consultation. Dr. DiPaola has treated both simple and complex dislocations and will create a treatment plan based on your unique injury and needs