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HealthInfo Waitaha Canterbury

Treating a broken elbow (olecranon)

Ka pēhea te tuke tāwhatiwhati e whakarauora?

Full arm cast with arm bent, stabilising a broken elbowThe way your broken elbow will be treated depends on many different things, including:

Treatment with a cast

If you have a stable (the bones do not move), less complex break, you probably will not need surgery, but will need a cast to hold the bones in the right place while they heal. You'll most likely wear the cast for six weeks before starting to gently move your arm again.

The cast will probably start near your wrist and go up your upper arm to near your armpit. Your arm will be bent to help keep your elbow bones in the right place while they're healing.

You can start doing some gentle hand exercises after three weeks and some gentle elbow exercises once the cast comes off. Your cast may be changed to a removable splint after three weeks, so you can start gentle elbow exercises early.

After your cast is removed, you may need to see a physiotherapist to help gain the movement and strength back in your arm.

Sometimes a break seems to be stable and is put in a cast but as the swelling goes down, the broken bones move apart and need surgery to put them back into place. For this reason, you'll have regular X-rays while your elbow is in a cast to make sure the bones stay in the right place while they're healing.

You may need some time off work after your injury. How long will depend on your injury and the type of work you do.

Surgery for a broken elbow

If the break is unstable (the bone can move out of the right position) or the bone has shattered into many pieces, you may need surgery to put the broken bone back into the right place and hold it there until it heals.

If you need surgery for your broken elbow, it will be done by an orthopaedic (bone) surgeon.

Exactly what surgery you have will depends on what type of break you have. Your surgeon will talk to you about what it involves, the risks, benefits and how you're likely to recover.

Your surgery will involve some metal (usually wires, or a plate and screws) to line up your bones properly and support them while they heal. It's possible the screws will be held together with clamps and rods outside your skin to stabilise the break. This is called external fixation.

You'll probably spend one night in hospital and your arm will be in a cast or backslab (a half-cast that wraps around the back of your arm) for up to four weeks.

Wires and external fixation usually need to be removed once you've healed. Exactly when that will happen depends on how bad your break was and how quickly your bones heal.

Getting help for a broken elbow

You'll need some weeks off work after surgery. How long will depend on the injury and the type of work you do. ACC may be able to help you while you aren't working.

You may need some physiotherapy to strengthen your arm and get it moving again. Your physiotherapist can also advise you on what kind of activities you can do and how much you should do.

If you have any concerns about how you're healing or about your cast, please contact your general practice team.

Written by HealthInfo clinical advisers. Last reviewed July 2022.


See also:

ACC help after an injury

Care of your cast

Living with an injury

Page reference: 390741

Review key: HISHI-13267