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A to Z: Dislocation, Elbow

May also be called: Elbow Dislocation; Dislocated Elbow; Nursemaid’s Elbow; Radial Head Subluxation; Annular Ligament Displacement

An elbow dislocation is an injury that happens when the upper arm bone slips out of position with the bones of the lower arm.

More to Know

The elbow is both a hinge joint and a ball-and-socket joint, allowing the lower arm to extend and rotate in relation to the upper arm. The elbow is made up of the upper arm bone (humerus), the two bones of the forearm (radius and ulna) and the ligaments and cartilage that hold the bones in place.

If a lot of force is applied to the lower arm, the bones can come out of position with one another. They can be completely dislocated or only partially dislocated, which is sometimes called a subluxation.

An elbow dislocation usually is caused by a fall onto an outstretched hand that forces the upper ends of the radius and ulna past the humerus. Motor vehicle accidents and sports injuries also can dislocate elbows. Pulling on a young child's arm can cause nursemaid's elbow, a condition that happens when ligaments slip over the head of the radius and cause a partial dislocation.

A dislocated elbow can be extremely painful, especially if it's a complete dislocation. Complete dislocations also can make the joint appear very deformed or distorted. Partial dislocations may cause bruising and tenderness in the elbow.

Sometimes, the injury that dislocated the elbow also causes fractures in the arm bones. In rare cases, nerves or arteries can become pinched by the dislocated bones and cause pain or loss of feeling in the forearm.

Dislocated elbows are treated by realigning the bones, which may be done manually by a trained doctor or through surgery.

Keep in Mind

A dislocated elbow is a serious injury that needs immediate medical attention. After treatment, most people recover fully within 6 months and have little or no loss of motion in the elbow. Nursemaid's elbow often can be prevented by not pulling on a child's arm or lifting a child by the arms.

All A to Z dictionary entries are regularly reviewed by KidsHealth medical experts.

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