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HealthInfo Canterbury

Broken elbow (olecranon fracture)

Your elbow is the moveable joint between your upper arm bone (humerus) and your forearm bones (radius and ulna). It works like a hinge. The hard point, or tip, of your elbow is called the olecranon (o-lek-ra-non).

How does an olecranon break?

Olecranon fracture, showing the humerus and radius with the olecranon broken from the ulnaA fracture, or break, of the olecranon usually happens when you fall onto a hard surface and directly hit the point of your elbow. It can also be caused by:

Weak bones (for example, the bones of someone with osteoporosis) tend to break more easily.

Your olecranon can break in many different ways, and some breaks are worse than others. How bad a break it is depends on how many pieces a bone breaks into, whether they are stable or move around a lot, and whether the broken ends of the bone are still in the right place.

If you have an open fracture, this is particularly serious. An open fracture means bits of bone are sticking out through your skin, or a cut or gash goes all the way down to your bone. Once your skin is broken, you are more likely to get infection in your wound and bone. You need to be treated immediately to stop this from happening.

How do I know if I have broken my olecranon?

If you have broken your olecranon, the tip of your elbow will be painful and swollen. It may be hard to bend and straighten your elbow. Your elbow may seem to be deformed, because it is swollen or a bone is out of place. You may feel pain just where it is broken, or whenever you move your arm. It's possible your fingers may tingle, your fingertips may be numb, or your elbow might feel unstable, as if your elbow is going to pop out.

If you think you may have broken a bone in your elbow it is important to see a doctor or nurse practitioner. They will ask about how your injury happened, look at your elbow, and take X-rays to find out which bone is broken and what kind of break it is. They may also X-ray above and below where you are sore, to check if you have any other nearby injuries. Occasionally, people also have a CT scan, which can show a complex break more clearly, or an MRI, to show any soft tissue injury.

On the next page: How is a broken elbow treated?

Written by HealthInfo clinical advisers. Endorsed by orthopaedic surgeon, Canterbury DHB. Page created July 2017.


See also:

Broken bones first aid

Broken radial head

Page reference: 131977

Review key: HISHI-13267