It's easy for parents to sometimes forget that active preschoolers — who run, climb, jump, and quickly hop up after falling — aren't as rough and tumble as their older siblings.
Kids this age are prone to nursemaid's elbow, a partial dislocation of the elbow joint that happens when a ligament slips out of place near the elbow. The medical terms for this is "annular ligament displacement."
Nursemaid's elbow (also known as pulled elbow) is a common early childhood injury. It usually happens in kids 1 to 4 years years old because their ligaments (the elastic-like bands that hold bones together) are loose and bones are not yet fully formed. This makes it easier for some bones to slip in and out of place. As kids get older, their ligaments tighten and become thicker, bones enlarge and harden, and the risk of nursemaid's elbow decreases.
A child with nursemaid's elbow has some initial pain in the arm, but the injury does not cause long-term damage. At the doctor's office or in the emergency room, a medical professional can slip the ligament back into place (usually without the need for any pain medicines), ending the problem quickly.
The elbow joint connects the upper arm bone (humerus) to the lower arm bones (radius and ulna). The rounded tip of the radius (the radial head) is surrounded by a ligament (the annular ligament) that is sometimes loose in younger kids.
If it's not tight enough, this ligament may slip over the radial head and even tear. The ligament also can then get trapped in the elbow joint. In some kids, this can happen very easily with just a small amount of force.
Other actions can increase the risk of nursemaid's elbow, such as:
A child might have nursemaid's elbow if:
An arm or elbow injury that causes severe pain may indicate an elbow fracture (broken bone) or contusion (bruise). It can be hard for a parent to tell whether an injury is nursemaid's elbow or a fracture, so it's important to call your doctor if your child has injured an elbow.
In some cases of nursemaid's elbow, the bone will move back into place on its own, such when a child does something that moves the joint, like putting on a coat. Even if you think the bone has moved back into place, it's still important to see a doctor to make sure that nothing else is wrong with the arm. Do not try to put the bone back into place yourself.
Your doctor may be able to treat a nursemaid's elbow injury or might refer you to the emergency room for treatment.
The doctor will first see whether your child is likely to have nursemaid's elbow based on the cause of injury and the physical exam. The arm, hand, and shoulder will be felt to make sure there's no swelling, tenderness, or other abnormality, which could point to a fracture instead.
X-rays are only needed if a fracture is suspected. If there's no obvious swelling or other injury, the doctor will perform a gentle maneuver that allows the bone to go back into its normal place. The medical term for this is a reduction.
This procedure is very quick and takes only a few seconds. A child is usually asked to sit on a parent's lap while the doctor attempts to reduce the displacement of the ligament. During the procedure, the arm is taken from a straight position and bent upwards in a swift motion. The doctor will listen for a "pop" sound, indicating the bone is back in place.
The child may experience a moment of pain during the reduction, but soon after treatment the discomfort is gone. Most kids have full use of the arm within 5 to 10 minutes. Some cases may require more than one try to successfully reduce the elbow.
Occasionally, a child may avoid using the arm after the reduction for a brief time, fearing it will be painful. If discomfort continues, the doctor may put the arm in a sling and recommend acetaminophen or ibuprofen for pain relief.
It's important to remember that sometimes nursemaid's elbow can happen for no obvious reason. Some kids are just more prone to the injury than others. And those who get nursemaid's elbow may get it again.
So be mindful of the risks and, whenever possible, avoid tugging, swinging, or jerking on your child's hands or arms, and be sure to tell caregivers to do the same.
Reviewed by: Rupal Christine Gupta, MD
Date reviewed: July 2014
|American Medical Association (AMA) The AMA has made a commitment to medicine by making doctors more accessible to their patients. Contact the AMA at: American Medical Association|
515 N. State St.
Chicago, IL 60610
|American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS) The AAOS provides information for the public on sports safety, and bone, joint, muscle, ligament and tendon injuries or conditions.|
|American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) The AAP is committed to the health and well-being of infants, adolescents, and young adults. The website offers news articles and tips on health for families.|
|A to Z: Contusion (Bruise), Elbow Learn more about elbow contusions (bruises).|
|Panner's Disease Panner's disease is a rare but painful bone condition linked to overuse of the elbow. Even though recovery can be slow, the condition usually doesn't cause any long-term problems.|
|A to Z: Fracture, Elbow Fractured (broken) elbows are a common injury in kids and teens.|
|Household Safety: Preventing Injuries From Falling, Climbing, and Grabbing The potential for a dangerous fall or a tumble into a sharp edge can happen in nearly every area of your home. Read about how to help protect kids from getting hurt.|
|Household Safety: Preventing Injuries in the Crib Your baby will spend a lot of time in the crib, and it's your job to make sure it's always a safe environment. Here's how to ensure the safety of your littlest sleeper.|
|X-Ray Exam: Elbow An elbow X-ray can help find the cause of symptoms such as pain, tenderness, swelling, or a deformity. It can also help to detect broken bones or a dislocated joint.|
|Bones, Muscles, and Joints Without bones, muscles, and joints, we couldn't stand, walk, run, or even sit. The musculoskeletal system supports our bodies, protects our organs from injury, and enables movement.|
What to expect when coming to Akron Children's
For healthcare providers and nurses
Residency & Fellowships, Medical Students, Nursing and Allied Health
For prospective employees and career-seekers
Our online community that provides inspirational stories and helpful information.