Though you might take your elbows for granted, they are essential to your ability to perform basic tasks. Without them, you could not bend your arms, reach for objects, or hold onto items.
Your elbows are constantly in motion. This constant movement increases their risk for injury. One common but painful and potentially debilitating injury is an olecranon fracture.
Your elbows are joints connecting the bones of your upper arm and forearms. Soft tissues like ligaments and tendons surround the joints and join bones with neighboring muscles. The elbow’s anatomy includes a pointed bone called the olecranon, which is the sharp part jutting out from the elbow’s tip.
An olecranon fracture occurs when the bone sustains a break. This injury happens with relative frequency both as isolated incidents and as part of more serious and complicated elbow-related events. Olecranon fractures are seen in greater numbers than other injuries because the bone is situated near the skin and lacks the protection other bones have.
Types Of Fractures
Bone breakages are divided into categories based on their severity.
Simple fractures are those involving only slight bone damage. Displaced fractures are more serious, with bones shifting from their original position. Open or compound fractures are the most serious. In such cases, broken, displaced bones break through surrounding skin.
Olecranon fractures result from causes such as:
- Falls – Sometimes, when you take a tumble, you land on your elbow to break the fall and shield the rest of your body and land straight down on your olecranon bone. You might also fall on an outstretched arm, leading to olecranon bone damage.
- Forceful Contact – Olecranon bone breaks might also result from forceful contact. For example, blunt trauma from a heavy object can result in a fracture. Breakages occur during contact in physical sports like football.
- Accidents – Car accidents also account for a large percentage of cases. Such events often bring forth quick and powerful contact with hard surfaces like a vehicle’s windows, dashboard, steering wheel, or doors.
The risk of sustaining an olecranon bone fracture increases if you take part in a contact sport or competition where falling is common such as skiing, figure skating, or rock climbing. Underlying illnesses impacting bone strength and density, like osteoporosis, increase your chances of a fracture.
The most obvious symptom is pain. This discomfort usually occurs immediately following the injury and is often severe. The pain often makes moving or bending your elbow difficult, if not impossible. Other common symptoms include:
- Swelling in and around your elbow’s tip.
- Elbow bruising.
- Bruising that spreads up and down the arms.
- The olecranon bone is painful and tender when touched.
More serious injuries might produce symptoms such as numbness in the fingers and hands of the affected arm and joint instability, creating weakness and a sensation like an elbow joint shifting out of place.
If not treated, olecranon fractures may not heal properly. Over time, this could result in bone deformity capable of creating unsightly elbow formations and significant movement limitations that make even the most routine tasks challenging.
Unstable joints stand at an increased risk of developing inflammation resulting in a painful condition called arthritis.
Open or compound fractures often become infected unless repaired and treated immediately. These infections typically spread to the affected bone and surrounding tissues and can quickly become a medical emergency.
During the diagnostic process’s first phase, your doctor will perform a physical exam and gather information about your health history and ask questions about the type of symptoms you experience and their severity, if you were recently involved in an accident of any kind, or take part in contact sports or recreational activities where falls commonly occur.
Once this stage is completed, your doctor will visually examine your elbow for abnormalities like redness, swelling, bruising, or bone shifting. They may press on the injured area and ask you to perform various movement tests to measure your pain threshold and gauge your elbow’s movement ranges.
Your doctor might order internal imaging tests like X-rays to reach an accurate diagnosis. The internal images of bones help identify irregularities like fractures. You may also be asked to undergo an MRI scan to rule out damage to neighboring muscles or soft tissues.
The treatment chosen by the doctor will depend on the fracture’s severity, if complications are present, your physical fitness levels and goals, and your overall health. Simple, uncomplicated cases often respond favorably to home care methods. More complex injuries may need surgery.
Non-Surgical Treatment Options
Slightly broken and non-displaced bones can be positioned inside movement-restricting devices like casts or splints. Swelling and pain may be reduced through the application of ice. In some cases, pain-relieving and inflammation-reducing medications provide temporary relief. They drugs should only be used for short intervals and exactly as directed.
Moderate to severe fractures involving bone displacement typically need surgery.
One common surgical procedure is labeled open reduction and internal fixation. During this process, surgeons return the fractured structures to their original position by inserting man-made materials into the bones to ensure they remain in place until healed completely.
Bone grafts might be performed in cases where bones are crushed and need replacement. Grafted bones are taken from another part of the body or created from manufactured products and positioned where the original bone was located.
Open or compound wounds must be repaired and re-positioned right away. The surrounding damaged tissues are thoroughly cleansed and stitched to prevent possible infection.
The Recovery Process
Your recovery time will depend on the severity of your injury and the methods used to treat it.
All but the simplest fractures will likely need a course of physical therapy geared toward helping the elbow regain the strength and motion it might have lost while injured and immobile.
On average, those recovering from simple fractures usually return to any strenuous activities they once did in as little as four months. Complicated cases involving surgical intervention often take longer. In some cases, full recovery may take up to a year.
Incidents caused by accidents cannot usually be prevented. You can reduce your risk for an olecranon fracture through actions such as:
- Exercising your elbow.
- Consuming a healthy diet of calcium and vitamin D.
- Limiting or quitting smoking and alcohol.
- Wearing protective elbow coverings.
If you sustained an olecranon fracture, make your first and only stop Dr. Peter Howard!