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An olecranon (oh-LEK-rah-nun) fracture is a break in the bony tip of the elbow. This pointy segment of bone is part of the ulna, one of the three bones that come together to form the elbow joint.
The olecranon is positioned directly under the skin of the elbow, without much protection from muscles or other soft tissues. It can break easily if you experience a direct blow to the elbow or fall onto the tip of the elbow. A fracture can be very painful and make elbow motion difficult or impossible.
Treatment for an olecranon fracture depends upon the severity of the injury. Some simple fractures can be treated by wearing a splint until the bone heals. In most olecranon fractures, however, the pieces of bone move out of place when the injury occurs. For these fractures, surgery is required to restore both the normal anatomy of the elbow and motion in the joint.
The olecranon (arrow) is the bony point of the elbow.
Your elbow is a joint made up of three bones:
- The humerus (upper arm bone)
- The radius (forearm bone on the thumb side)
- The ulna (forearm bone on the pinky side)
The elbow joint bends and straightens like a hinge. It is also important for rotation of the forearm; that is, the ability to turn your palm up (like accepting change from a cashier) or palm down (like typing or playing the piano).
The elbow consists of portions of all three bones:
- The distal humerus is the lower end of the humerus. It forms the upper part of the elbow and is the spool around which the forearm bends and straightens.
- The radial head is the knobby end of the radius where it meets the elbow. It glides up and down the front of the distal humerus when you bend your arm and rotates around the ulna when you turn your wrist up or down.
- The olecranon is the part of the ulna that cups the lower end of the humerus, creating a hinge for elbow movement. The bony point of the olecranon can easily be felt beneath the skin because it is covered by just a thin layer of tissue.
The elbow is held together by its bony architecture, as well as ligaments, tendons, and muscles. Three major nerves cross the elbow joint.
(Left) The bones of the elbow. The olecranon is the tip of the elbow and is part of the ulna.
(Right) The major nerves and ligaments are highlighted.
Olecranon fractures are fairly common. Although they usually occur on their own with no other injuries, they can also be part of a more complex elbow injury.
In an olecranon fracture, the bone can crack just slightly or break into many pieces. The broken pieces of bone may line up straight or may be far out of place (displaced fracture).
In some cases, the bone breaks in such a way that bone fragments stick out through the skin or a wound penetrates down to the bone. This is called an open fracture. Open fractures are particularly serious because once the skin is broken, infection in both the wound and the bone are more likely to occur. Immediate treatment is required to prevent infection.
Olecranon fractures are most often caused by:
- Falling directly on the elbow
- Receiving a direct blow to the elbow from something hard, like a baseball bat, or a dashboard or car door during a vehicle collision.
- Falling on an outstretched arm with the elbow held tightly to brace against the fall. In this situation, the triceps muscle, which attaches to the olecranon, can pull a piece of the bone off of the ulna. Injuries to the ligaments around the elbow may occur with this type of injury, as well.
An olecranon fracture usually causes sudden, intense pain and can prevent you from moving your elbow. Other signs and symptoms of a fracture may include:
- Swelling over the tip or back of the elbow.
- Bruising around the elbow. Sometimes, this bruising travels up the arm toward the shoulder or down the forearm toward the wrist.
- Tenderness to the touch.
- Numbness in one or more fingers.
- Pain with movement of the elbow or with rotation of the forearm.
- A feeling of instability in the joint, as if your elbow is going to pop out.
Your doctor will talk with you about your medical history and general health and ask about your symptoms. They will then examine your elbow to determine the extent of the injury. During the exam, your doctor will:
- Check your skin for cuts, swelling, blistering, and bruising. In severe fractures, bone fragments can break through the skin, increasing the risk of infection.
- Palpate (feel) all around your elbow to determine if there are any other areas of tenderness. This could indicate other broken bones or injuries, such as a dislocated elbow.
- Check your pulse at the wrist to ensure that there is good blood flow to your hand and fingers.
- Check to see that you can move your fingers and wrist, and can feel things with your fingers.
Although you may have pain only at the elbow, your doctor may also examine your shoulder, upper arm, forearm, wrist, and hand to ensure that you do not have any other injuries.
X-rays provide images of dense structures, such as bones. Your doctor will order X-rays of your elbow to help diagnosis your fracture. Depending on your symptoms, the doctor may also order X-rays of your upper arm, forearm, shoulder, wrist, and/or hand to determine whether you have other injuries.
This X-ray taken from the side shows an olecranon fracture in which the pieces of bone have moved out of place (displaced).
Reproduced from Konda SR: Fractures around the elbow, in Egol KA, Gardner MJ, eds: Let's Discuss Management of Common Fractures. Rosemont, IL, American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, 2016, pp. 17-30.
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While you are in the emergency room, your doctor will apply a splint (like a cast) to your elbow, and give you a sling to help keep the elbow in position. Immediate treatment may also include:
- Applying ice to reduce pain and swelling
- Medications to relieve pain
Your doctor will determine whether your fracture requires surgery. Many olecranon fractures will require surgery.
If the pieces of bone are not out of place (displaced), a fracture can sometimes be treated with a splint to hold the elbow in place during healing. During the healing process, your doctor will take frequent X-rays to make sure the bone has not shifted out of place.
You will typically wear a splint for 6 weeks before starting gentle motion. If the fracture shifts in position during this time, you may need surgery to put the bones back together.
(Left) The doctor will apply a splint that runs from near your shoulder all the way to your hand. (Right) An elastic bandage is applied to help keep the splint in place.
Surgery is usually required for olecranon fractures in which:
- The bones have moved out of place (displaced fracture)
- Pieces of bone have punctured the skin (open fracture)
Surgery for olecranon fractures typically involves putting the broken pieces of bone back into position and preventing them from moving out of place until they are healed.
Because of the increased risk of infection, open fractures are scheduled for surgery as soon as possible, usually within hours of the diagnosis. Patients are given antibiotics by vein (intravenous) in the emergency room, and may receive a tetanus shot. During surgery, the cuts from the injury and the surfaces of the broken bone are thoroughly cleaned out. The bone will typically be repaired during the same surgery.
Open reduction and internal fixation. This is the procedure most often used to treat olecranon fractures. During the procedure, the bone fragments are first repositioned (reduced) into their normal alignment. The pieces of bone are then held in place with screws, wires, pins, or metal plates attached to the outside of the bone.
Some common methods of internal fixation are shown below.
An olecranon fracture may be held together with pins and wires. This is called a tension band.
(Left) Reproduced from Boyer MI, Galatz LM, Borrelli J, Axelrod TS, Ricci WM: Intra-articular fractures of the upper extremity: new concepts in surgical treatment, in Ferlic DC, ed: Instr Course Lect 52. Rosemont, IL, American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, 2003, pp. 591-605.
(Left)A single screw, placed into the center of the bone, may be used to keep the fractured bones together.
(Right)Plate(s) and screws may be used to hold the broken bones in place.
Bone graft. If some of the bone has been lost through the wound or is crushed, the fracture may require bone graft to fill the gaps. Bone graft can be taken from a donor (allograft) or from another bone in your own body (autograft). In some cases, an artificial material can be used instead of bone graft.
Complications of Surgery
There are risks associated with any surgery. If your doctor recommends surgery, they think that the possible benefits outweigh the risks.
Potential complications include:
Elbow stiffness. One of the most common problems patients face after any fracture around the elbow is stiffness. It is very important to begin physical therapy as directed to avoid elbow stiffness. In most cases, the
Infection. There is a risk of infection with any surgery. Your doctor will take specific measures to help prevent infection.
Hardware irritation. A small percentage of patients may experience irritation from the metal implants used to repair the fracture.
Damage to nerves and blood vessels. There is a minor risk of damage to nerves and blood vessels around the elbow. This is an unusual side effect.
Nonunion. Sometimes, a fracture does not heal. The fracture may pull apart and the screws, plates, or wires may shift or break. This can occur for a number of reasons, including:
- The patient does not follow directions after surgery.
- The patient has a health problem, such as diabetes, that slows healing. Smoking or using other tobacco products also slows healing. Learn more: Smoking and Surgery
- If the fracture was associated with a cut in the skin (open fracture), healing is often slower.
- Infections can also slow or prevent healing.
If the fracture fails to heal, you may need further surgery.
Most fractures hurt moderately for a few days to a couple of weeks. Many patients find that using ice, elevation (holding their arm up above their heart), and non-prescription pain medications are sufficient to relieve pain.
If your pain is severe, your doctor may suggest a prescription-strength medication, such as an opioid, for a few days.
Be aware that although opioids help relieve pain after surgery, opioid dependency and overdose have become critical public health issues. For this reason, opioids are typically prescribed for a short period of time. It is important to use opioids only as directed by your doctor and to stop taking them as soon as your pain begins to improve.
Whether your treatment is surgical or nonsurgical, full recovery from an olecranon fracture requires a good effort at rehabilitation.
Recovery After Nonsurgical Treatment
Because nonsurgical treatment can sometimes require long periods of splinting or casting, your elbow may become very stiff. For this reason, you may need a longer period of physical therapy to regain motion.
During rehabilitation, your doctor or a physical therapist will provide you with exercises to help:
- Improve range of motion
- Decrease stiffness
- Strengthen the muscles within the elbow
You will not be allowed to lift, push, or pull anything with your injured arm for a few weeks. Your doctor will talk with you about specific restrictions.
Recovery After Surgical Treatment
Depending on the complexity of the fracture and the stability of the repair, your elbow may be splinted or casted for a short period of time after surgery.
Physical therapy. Patients will usually begin exercises to improve motion in the elbow and forearm shortly after surgery, sometimes as early as the next day. It is extremely important to perform the exercises as often as directed. The exercises will only make a difference if they are done regularly.
Restrictions. You will not be allowed to lift heavy objects with your injured arm for at least 6 weeks. You will also be restricted from pushing and pulling activities, such as opening doors or pushing up while rising from a chair. You may be allowed to use your arm for bathing, dressing, and feeding activities. Your doctor will give you specific instructions. They will also let you know when it is safe to drive a car.
Complications of Olecranon Fractures
Even with successful treatment, some patients with olecranon fractures may experience long-term complications.
Loss of Motion
In some cases, a patient may not be able to regain full motion in the affected elbow. In most of these cases, the patient cannot fully extend or straighten their arm. Fortunately, the loss of a few degrees of straightening does not usually affect the overall function of the arm. Patients who have significant loss of motion may require intensive physical therapy, special bracing, or further surgery. This is uncommon for olecranon fractures.
Posttraumatic arthritis is a type of arthritis that develops in a joint after an injury. Even when your bones heal normally, the cartilage lining the joint surfaces can be damaged, leading to pain and stiffness over time.
Posttraumatic arthritis is a relatively common complication of olecranon fractures. It can occur shortly after the fracture occurs or can take years to develop. Some patients with posttraumatic arthritis may need further surgery to relieve their symptoms. However, for many patients, there is little pain and no need for further treatment.
Most patients can return to their normal activities within about 4 months, although full healing can take more than a year. Recovering strength in your arm often takes longer than might be expected.
Although X-rays may show that the fracture has healed completely, some patients report that they still have limitations in movement. These patients will usually continue to improve over time.
Questions to Ask Your Doctor
If you experience an olecranon fracture, here are some questions you may wish to ask your doctor:
- When can I start moving my elbow?
- How soon can I resume my normal activities?
- What factors will prolong or delay healing?
- If I have to have surgery, what are the benefits and risks?
- What will my recovery be like?
Suspected olecranon fractures require orthopedic consultation. After a thorough history, physical exam, and imaging, the fracture should be immobilized in a posterior splint with slight extension. The reduction is indicated in type 3 injuries with the aim of reducing the remaining articular surface with the trochlea.How long does it take for a fractured elbow olecranon to heal? ›
The prognosis for olecranon fractures is generally excellent and the fracture will typically heal within three months. You will find that your elbow and shoulder become stiff due to the immobilization process. Physical or occupational therapy is typically recommended to regain strength and range of motion.What are the different types of olecranon fractures? ›
|Type A||Simple transverse fracture|
|Type B||Transverse impacted fracture|
|Type C||Oblique fracture|
|Type D||Comminuted fracture|
Olecranon fractures can be addressed through a posterior midline skin incision curved slightly laterally around the tip of the olecranon.Do you need a cast for a olecranon fracture? ›
Treatment. While you are in the emergency room, your doctor will apply a splint (like a cast) to your elbow, and give you a sling to help keep the elbow in position. Immediate treatment may also include: Applying ice to reduce pain and swelling.Can olecranon fracture heal without surgery? ›
Most elbow fractures, if they are non-displaced, can be treated with conservative techniques such as: Elevation of the elbow to help decrease swelling. Icing. Immobilization with an arm sling or wrap while bones heal.What happens if olecranon fracture is left untreated? ›
What happens if nothing is done? If the olecranon fracture is left untreated, there may be non-union or mal-union of the fractures with persistent pain. There may be a reduction in the normal range of motion of the elbow. You may also suffer from elbow instability or elbow stiffness or post-traumatic arthritis.How painful is an olecranon fracture? ›
Olecranon fractures are normally very painful, and you will likely experience acute discomfort on the olecranon itself, as well as underneath the elbow. This pain may radiate outward affecting the lower and upper arms.What are the risks of an olecranon fracture? ›
Complications after olecranon fractures include: loss of motion, nonunion, malunion, infection, wound dehiscence, instability, symptomatic hardware, ulnar neuritis, posttraumatic arthritis, and heterotopic ossification.What surgery is done for fractured elbow? ›
Open reduction and internal fixation (ORIF) is a type of surgery used to stabilize and heal a broken bone. You might need this procedure to treat your broken elbow. The elbow joint is a hinge type of joint composed of 3 bones.
Therefore, plate fixation is widely accepted treatment of the comminuted olecranon fracture such as Mayo type 2b and 3 . The intramedullary screws from the tip of olecranon can hold the small bone fragment of the articular surface into a correct position.Can you still bend your arm with a fractured elbow? ›
Even if you're still able to move your arm or elbow, you may have a broken bone, so don't delay treatment. The longer you delay, the higher your chance of having permanent damage or stiffness in your elbow.Should a fractured elbow be in a sling? ›
You may be given a collar and cuff or sling for pain relief only. It's important that you reduce the use of this as your pain improves to prevent your elbow from becoming stiff. The aim is to stop wearing this support as soon as possible, ideally within a week.What is another name for an olecranon fracture? ›
Olecranon Fracture (Elbow Fracture)How do you know if you need elbow surgery? ›
Your doctor might recommend surgery if: You have elbow pain after more than 6 to 12 months of tendon rest and rehabilitation. You can't do your job or daily activities because of elbow pain. You have had corticosteroid shots and still have elbow pain.Can elbow fracture heal on its own? ›
This kind of injury should not be dealt with on your own. It's critical that anyone who has potentially fractured an elbow see a doctor as soon as possible. There is a risk of permanent damage if the injury is not properly tended to.How do you sleep with a broken elbow? ›
Prop up your arm on pillows when you sit or lie down in the first few days after the injury. Keep your elbow higher than the level of your heart. This will help reduce swelling.How long does olecranon fracture surgery take? ›
The procedure typically takes approximately one hour and can be performed on an outpatient basis. The surgical incision is centered on the back of the elbow.What is the most painful bone to break in your arm? ›
Your humerus is the only bone in your upper arm. Because it's so strong, it usually takes the strong force of a trauma like a serious fall or a car accident to break it.What is a type 2 olecranon fracture? ›
Mayo Type II fractures account for 80% to 85% of olecranon fractures and are displaced with a stable ulnohumeral joint indicating intact ligamentous structures, particularly the anterior portion of the medial collateral ligament [13, 14].
After your procedure, you'll wear a splint for one week, followed by a cast. Several weeks after the surgery, your doctor will remove the cast and pins. Some surgeries for elbow fractures are outpatient, meaning you go home the same day.How long do you wear a sling after elbow surgery? ›
During the first 2 weeks, you may remove your sling at home during the day but need to wear the sling in public (around other people) and when sleeping. After 2 weeks, the sling can be removed at all times.Is elbow surgery considered major surgery? ›
It is a minimally invasive surgery that can be used to diagnose a range of elbow conditions.What is conservative treatment for olecranon fracture? ›
Their conservative treatment comprised immobilization of the upper arm with the elbow at 90° for a mean period of 4.1 weeks (range: 1–12) and physiotherapy.How long should you rest a fractured elbow? ›
6 to 12 weeks after your injury
The injury should be healed between 6 to 12 weeks but heavy tasks may cause discomfort. You should aim to: return to full function. resume normal day to day activity.
Symptoms of an olecranon fracture may include pain, tenderness, swelling and the inability to straighten the elbow or pain while straightening the elbow. Depending on the degree and type of fracture, treatment may include the use of a sling or surgery to help hold the bones in place while they heal.What are the complications of olecranon fracture? ›
Complications after olecranon fractures include: loss of motion, nonunion, malunion, infection, wound dehiscence, instability, symptomatic hardware, ulnar neuritis, posttraumatic arthritis, and heterotopic ossification.Why can't I straighten my elbow after a fracture? ›
Stiff elbow may develop after a fracture, dislocation, or other injury, elbow surgery or osteoarthritis. The build-up of scar tissue and formation of bony tissue around the joint make it difficult to bend (flex) and straighten (extend) your arm completely.What is non surgical treatment of olecranon bursitis? ›
Individuals who exhibit olecranon bursitis are advised to apply the RICE (rest, ice, compression, elevation) method of treatment. Icing of the posterior elbow for 15-20 minutes at a time, several times daily, is recommended during the acute period (2-5 days).