Fracture of the radial head

What is a fracture of the radial head?

The radial bone connects the elbow to the wrist, with the radial head being just below the elbow.
Radial head fractures account for around 20 per cent of elbow injuries and about 10 per cent of elbow dislocations.


This type of fracture is usually caused when you put out your hand to break a fall, landing on the arm when it is straight with the elbow locked.


Pain (on the outside of the elbow), swelling, limited movement, bruising and tenderness.


Following a medical examination, the diagnosis is usually backed up by an X-ray which will show the extent of the damage.


You will be offered immediate surgery if the elbow is dislocated or where nerves or blood vessels are involved
Non-displaced fracture: this means that there is a crack in the bone, which can be seen on an X-ray, although the bones stay in their usual position. This type of fracture can usually be treated without surgery by having your arm in a splint for a few days, followed by gentle exercises

Unstable fracture: sometimes fractures may be slightly displaced. It may be possible to treat this type of fracture with a splint, followed by gentle exercise and small fragments of bone can be removed using arthroscopy. Larger fragments can be re-attached with pins, plates and/or screws

Displaced or open fracture: where the bone fragments are out of place (displaced) or if the joint and ligaments are damaged, you may need surgery to repair broken bone and any tissue damage, followed by gentle exercises

Where there is elbow instability and/or deformity, you may need to have an artificial radial head fitted. This type of surgery is normally carried out under a general anaesthetic and may involve staying in hospital overnight

Even simple radial head fractures will usually mean that it’s harder to straighten your arm, so it’s important to perform any exercises recommended by your specialist to strengthen the arm.


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