It is instinctive to put your hands out to break a fall.  However, this can result in forceful contact with a hard surface, resulting in a fracture of the radial head or other bones in the arm.  Accidents can also cause such fractures, when arms are raised to protect oneself from contact with objects in the car.

A radial head fracture, which is considered an elbow injury, is a fracture to the area of the radius that meets at the elbow joint.  (see also elbow fractures).  The radius is one of two long bones that extend from the elbow to the wrist.  Radial fractures someone accompany other injuries such as elbow dislocation and broken arm.

Symptoms of radial head fractures

 

Symptoms of a radial head fracture can include:

  • Swelling of the elbow
  • Pain on the outside of the elbow joint
  • Pain when trying to bend or straighten the elbow
  • Trouble moving the elbow or turning the palms up or down

Diagnosing radial head fractures

After a physical examination, a doctor will often perform an x-ray or other test to determine the exact nature and severity of the fracture.  They will often classify the type of fracture using the following guide:

Type I Fractures: these are usually small cracks in the radial head, with the bones still fitted together.  Sometimes these can be difficult to detect on x-ray for the first few weeks following injury.  They can often be treated with a splint or a sling.

Type II Fractures: these involve greater displacement of the bone pieces.  Depending on the size of the fragmented bone, splinting may be an option, or surgery may be required to stabilize the bones in proper position or to remove broken pieces of the radial head.

Type III Fractures: The most serious type of radial head fracture, these injuries involve numerous pieces of broken bone that cannot easily be put back into position for proper healing.  With this injury, damage to the joints, ligaments, tendons, and muscles is common.  Surgery is likely required to repair the damage.  In severe cases, an artificial radial head may need to replace the damaged bone to prevent deformity and disability.

Prognosis for radial head fracture

Loss of complete elbow extension is possible in radial head fractures of any severity.  Physical therapy can help a patient toward healing and normal activities.

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