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Overview of broken elbows in children

Mō ngā tuke kua whati ki ngā tamariki

The elbow joint is made of the radius and ulna bones in the lower arm and the humerus bone in the upper arm. There is cartilage and a joint capsule between them. We can bend, straighten, and turn our lower arm (forearm) because of three bones that make up our elbow joints, and the way they work together.

The bone in our upper arm, going from our shoulder to our elbow, is called the humerus.

In our forearm, there are two bones:

It's common for tamariki (children) to break an elbow – this injury accounts for about 10% of all childhood broken bones.

Tamariki Children do lots of things that put them at risk of falling and injuring their elbow. This includes playing on jungle gyms, playing sports such as gymnastics or football, and activities such as skateboarding or cycling. Toddlers can break their elbow even if they fall from a lower height.

Usually a broken elbow happens when a tamaiti (child) falls onto an outstretched arm, falls directly on to their elbow, or gets a direct blow to their elbow.

Wearing protective elbow guards and pads during risky activities can help to reduce the risk of a broken elbow.

Symptoms of a broken elbow in children

When a tamaiti child breaks an elbow they will probably feel sudden, intense pain in their elbow and forearm, no matter which bone is broken. Other common symptoms include:

Diagnosing broken elbows in children

If your tamaiti complains of a sore elbow after a fall and cannot or will not move their arm, it's important to see your GP or after-hours clinic.

Your doctor or nurse will ask you questions about the injury, examine their elbow and take an X-ray to find out which bone is broken, and how it broke.

Sometimes broken elbows in tamariki can be difficult to see on X-rays, so your doctor may X-ray both elbows, to compare them. Often, they will also X-ray above and below the elbow, to make sure there are no other injuries, like a broken wrist. Very occasionally, they may send your tamaiti for other tests, such as a CT scan (which shows complex breaks more clearly) or MRI scan (which shows any soft tissue injuries).

Treating broken elbows in children

Treatment for a broken elbow depends on exactly where the break is and how much the bones have moved apart (displacement). If the break is simple and uncomplicated, your tamaiti may just need a cast on their arm while it heals.

On the next page:Treating broken elbows in children

Written by HealthInfo clinical advisers. Last reviewed March 2022.

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Review key: HISAA-362960