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Elbow Fractures

This page has been designed to provide you with the right information about elbow fractures and how to manage them from a physiotherapy point of view.

What is an elbow fracture?   

Firstly, a fracture is the same as a break. The word fracture is a medical term, whereas a break is more of a common term to describe an injury to a bone that has caused it to break. For the remainder of this information page, we will use the term fracture.

There are many different types of fractures; they all essentially mean the same thing i.e. that one or more of the bones in your elbow have been broken.

The most common type of fracture around the elbow is a radial head fracture and therefore the focus of this information page will be on this.

What is a radial head?

You have two bones in your forearm, one called the radius (thumb side) and the other called the ulna (little finger side). Both the radius and the ulna meet the upper arm bone (humerus) to form your elbow joint.

The part of the radius that meets the upper arm and forms part of the elbow joint is called the radial head. It is important for helping your elbow bend and straighten but is most important for helping your forearm arm twist and turn (for example turning your hand over to look at your watch).

Is it easy to fracture your elbow?

It really isn’t easy to break any bone in your body. Your bones are incredibly strong and can take an awful lot of knocks, bumps and injuries and will generally not complain. You are more likely to find that you may upset the soft tissues (ligaments, muscles and tendons) following an injury than your bones.


How would you fracture your elbow?

The most common way to fracture your radial head is by falling. If you trip or slip, you normally react by putting your hands out to protect your face as you fall. As your hand hits the floor, the energy and force created travels up your arm and can be enough to fracture the radial head. Sometimes a radial head can be fractured if you fall onto your side and ‘squash’ it.

Remember, it is very difficult to break a bone, therefore most of the time, an injury to your elbow would result in a soft tissue injury (ligament etc.) rather than a fracture.


What if I think I’ve actually broken my elbow?

If after a recent injury, your elbow is significantly swollen, very painful and won’t move properly, you should seek help via A&E.

If I go to hospital, what will they do? 

A diagnosis can often be made by asking some special questions and carrying out a physical examination (if available). However, if the hospital suspects you may have fractured your elbow, they will arrange an X-ray to check your bones.

What happens if I've broken my elbow?

If you have been to the hospital and an X-ray has revealed that you have fractured your elbow, you will usually be asked to see a specialist orthopaedic (bone and joint specialist) doctor to discuss your options.

Normally, the two options are non-surgical or surgical management.

Can elbow fractures be managed without surgery?

Yes. However, the orthopaedic doctor and their team will decide with you what the best option for you might be. Certain types of fractures can be managed more easily without surgery and some types of fractures do better with the help that surgery offers.


What do I do next?

Normally, once you have been discharged from hospital (whether you’ve had surgery or not), you should have been given some advice on what you should be doing. Most often, this will involve how much you can do with your elbow and what things might be useful to avoid whilst your elbow is in the early stages of its recovery.

If you are unsure how much you should/can do, ask the hospital as soon as you are able to.

What are the common symptoms after an elbow fracture?

It is useful for you to know what is normal after fracturing your elbow as it can sometimes be a worrying time. We’ve broken the answer down into things that are found most common.

How long will it take for my elbow to heal?

Fractures typically heal within about 6-8 weeks. There are things that might influence this such as any pre-existing health conditions e.g. diabetes or if you smoke, but in general once you pass the 6-8 week timescale, you can consider your elbow to be healed.

Unfortunately, just because the fracture itself might have healed, it does not mean that any pain will stop or the movement will come back by itself. This is where rehabilitation and physiotherapy can help.


Can I break it again by using it?

This is quite a normal concern for someone who has broken a bone. It is worth reminding yourself that your bones were strong before the fracture and they will still be strong now after the fracture.

By exercising your elbow and returning to normal daily activities (some of which might need some adjusting for your elbow), this aids the healing process even more and will help you get a better result overall.


Is there anything I shouldn’t be doing?

You are likely to have been advised to use the sling for a short period (a few days to perhaps 2 weeks), but it is important to still try and use your arm.

You can try and return to normal activities like brushing your hair or getting dressed using the elbow, and may choose to use the sling to rest it as needed, but it is strongly encouraged that you try to reduce how much you use the sling as soon as you feel you are able to, as it will help your overall recovery.

You may find lifting things like a full kettle difficult for the first 6 weeks and heavier things for probably a few weeks beyond that. Lifting is safe but whilst in the early stages of recovery, try using the other hand/asking for help or modifying how you lift (i.e. don’t fill the kettle too full).


Can I expect my elbow to go back to exactly how it was before I broke it?

This is a really good question. Once you have broken a bone, especially if it is close to a joint, you have effectively changed its anatomy. With this in mind, you may find that after a fracture, your elbow may not be able to go back to everything you did before or do things in the way you did before. It is not uncommon for radial head fractures to cause a limit in the amount of movement you have in the elbow, especially when trying to straighten it. The good news is that if you work hard, are patient and kind to yourself and give it the right amount of time, you will make the best recovery that you can.

Ok, what can I start doing to help my elbow get better?


Is there anything else I can do?


Is there anything I should look out for?

After a fracture it is important to look out for the following symptoms:

  • Redness, swelling and heat around the elbow, especially with a fever or feeling generally unwell

  • Significant pain that is not helped with pain relief or exercises

  • Considerable swelling of the whole arm (especially if pressing it leaves a finger mark)

  • Difficulty breathing

  • Any of the above especially if you have had a history of Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT)

If you have any concerns about any of the symptoms listed above, you should speak with your GP, 111 or seek help from A&E.

What exercises should I be doing to start with?

In the earliest stages of your recovery i.e. within the first two weeks, it is recommended that you simply try to gently move the elbow as well as you can, and as far as is comfortable. We have provided a selection of suitable exercises below.

Frequently asked questions


A: It is not unusual to find that your elbow feels strange after an injury. It is normal to feel tight or stiff after a fracture, but these things often ease with time and some gentle exercises.

A: Swelling can sometimes be the last thing to ease after injuries.  It can sometimes hang around for weeks into months after the injury, however if you are feeling better, moving better and doing more, it is not something you should be worried about.

A: It is not uncommon to find that your fingers might swell or feel stiff after an elbow injury. For the most part, this is either down to gravity pulling the swelling down from your elbow into your hand, or the fact that you might be using the arm less, which might contribute to your fingers feeling stiff.

A: Again, this is something that can be fairly common after an elbow fracture. If you managed to injure your elbow after a fall or an accident, it can sometimes be that your shoulder may have been upset at the same time. Sometimes, as the pain settles with the elbow you can find that the issues with the shoulder start to come to the surface.

You can find some excellent guidance and exercises for common shoulder problems here: Shoulder Self-help

A: It is likely that you will not be able to return to driving for at least 6 weeks after your injury. It is each individual’s responsibility to ensure they are fit to drive. As well as making sure you are in full control of the vehicle at all times, you should ensure you can confidently and without any hesitation, perform an emergency stop before even considering driving on public roads.

It is always recommended to contact your insurance company one month before you return to driving to ensure your insurance is valid. This advice is the same if you drive an automatic car.

A: This will be dictated by your elbow and your sport. Most people will find their elbow feels better after a few weeks/months. By working on the movement, strength and balance exercises, as well as being patient, you may find that going back to most sports in about 3 months will be successful (this can be very variable).

Exercise tip:

Movement exercises: You should try to complete these little and often throughout the day. Try to move your elbow as far as is comfortable.

Strength exercises: You should aim to complete the exercises (as many or as few as you want to) about 3 to 4 times a week.
Each exercise should be completed between 8-12 times (or repetitions) for 3 to 4 sets. Make sure you have about 1 minute's rest in between each set.
For the strengthening exercises, remember that in order to change your muscles, you need to challenge them. In other words, you should really feel the effort with each set of exercises and should really not be able to do more than 12 each time around.

Download our blank gym programme here.

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