When Your Child Has an Elbow Fracture

October 07, 2017

When Your Child Has an Elbow Fracture

Your child has an elbow fracture. That means he or she has a crack or break in one or more of the bones of the elbow joint. The elbow joint is formed by three arm bones:

  • Radius. This is the bone on the thumb side of the forearm.

  • Ulna. This is the bone on the little-finger side of the forearm. The ulna forms the tip of the elbow.

  • Humerus. This is the upper arm bone that connects to the shoulder.

Your child may see an orthopedist for evaluation and treatment. An orthopedist is a doctor who diagnoses and treats bone and joint problems.

Types of elbow fractures

Front view of elbow joint showing radius, ulna, humerus, and growth plate on bottom and side of humerus. Lateral condylar fracture is on outside lower humerus. Medial epicondylar fracture is on inside lower humerus at growth plate.

Front view of elbow joint showing growth plate on radius. Radial neck fracture goes through growth plate and bone.

Front view of elbow joint showing supracondylar fracture across lower part of humerus.

Types of fractures

Bones can break in many ways. Common types of fractures in children are:

  • Greenstick. This is when the bone bends, but doesn’t break all the way through.

  • Nondisplaced. This is when the bone breaks completely, but the ends stay lined up.

  • Displaced. This is when pieces of broken bone do not line up.

  • Growth plate. This is a break near or through the growth plate, the soft part of a bone where the bone grows as the child grows. A growth plate injury can slow growth in that bone. Growth plate injuries may be difficult to treat.

Fractures can be open (the broken bone comes through the skin). These used to be called “compound” fractures. Fractures can also be closed (the broken bone does not come through the skin).

What causes elbow fractures?

Elbow fractures usually result from

  • Falling on an outstretched hand

  • Falling on the elbow

  • Forcing the elbow joint to move in an unnatural way

  • Receiving a hard blow to the elbow

What are the signs and symptoms of an elbow fracture?

  • Swelling of the elbow

  • Pain

  • Bruising or discoloration of the skin around the elbow

  • Deformity of the elbow

  • Stiffness, making the elbow difficult to move

How are elbow fractures diagnosed?

You may have brought your child to the emergency room for the initial treatment of the elbow fracture. A treatment plan must now be made to make sure the elbow heals properly. The doctor will ask about your child’s health history and examine your child. An imaging test, such as an X-ray, will be done. Imaging tests show areas inside the body such as the bones. They give the doctor more information about your child’s injury.

How are elbow fractures treated?

Your child’s treatment plan is determined by the type, location, and severity of the fracture. As instructed, your child should:

  • Ice the elbow 3 to 4 times a day for 15 to 20 minutes at a time. Never put ice directly on your child's skin. Use an ice pack or bag of frozen peas—or something similar—wrapped in a thin towel. Do this to help relieve pain and swelling.

  • Wear a splint as instructed.

  • Wear a cast for 3 to 6 weeks.

  • Elevate the arm to reduce swelling. Keep the elbow above heart level as often as possible.

  • Do physical therapy to restore range of motion once the cast or splint is removed.

Some fractures may require closed reduction (moving broken pieces of bone back into alignment). Closed reduction is done from outside of the body and requires no incisions. For fractures of the joint, of the growth plate, or severe fractures, surgery may be needed. During surgery, fixation devices (pins that go through the skin into the bone) may be put into broken bone to hold it in place while it heals. These devices may need to be taken out by the doctor about 3 to 6 weeks after surgery.

Call the healthcare provider if your child has any of the following:

  • Increasing pain

  • Tingling, numbness, or pain around his or her cast or splint

  • Increasing swelling around the injured area

  • Fingers that change color or feel cold

  • Severe itching under a cast (mild itching is normal)

  • A cast that feels too tight or too loose

  • Any drainage comes through or out of the end of the cast

  • Blisters

  • Decreased ability to move fingers

  • A bad odor comes from underneath the cast

  • Fever as directed by your healthcare provider or:

    • Your child is younger than 12 weeks and has a fever of 100.4°F (38°C) or higher because your baby may need to be seen by a healthcare provider

    • Your child has repeated fevers above 104°F (40°C) at any age

    • Your child is younger than 2 years old and his or her fever continues for more than 24 hours or your child is 2 years old or older and his or her fever continues for more than 3 days

Take your child to the emergency department if your child has trouble moving his or her fingers or thumb.

What are the long-term concerns?

Once your child’s cast is removed, his or her elbow may have:

  • Temporary stiffness and some loss of motion. This is normal. The elbow should still work well.

  • Pain for 2–3 weeks, while the elbow continues to heal.

  • A different appearance than before the injury.

In severe cases, the nerves and arteries of the elbow can be injured. This can cause complications and make healing more difficult. Your child’s healthcare provider will give you more information.


October 07, 2017

Reviewed By:  

Bass, Pat F. III, MD, MPH,Images reviewed by StayWell medical illustration team.,Joseph, Thomas N., MD