Elbow fractures can involve any of the three bones that make up the joint (radius, ulna, and humerus). Fractures of the radial head or neck (the upper end of the radius) occur commonly in active adults after a fall on an outstretched arm. The outer side of the elbow is painful, and people cannot fully straighten the arm. Fractures of the upper arm bone (humerus) are more serious, often affecting the nerves.
X-rays usually show a fracture, but sometimes the only sign is fluid around the elbow joint.
Most radial head fractures are mild and can be treated with a splint or a sling and early (within a few days) gentle range-of-motion exercises. Early motion helps prevent permanent stiffness. More severe radial head fractures may require surgical treatment.
Last full review/revision December 2008 by James R. Roberts, MD