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Radial head fracture - aftercare

Alternative names

Elbow fracture - radial head - aftercare

Description

The radius bone goes from your elbow to your wrist. The radial head is at the top of the radius bone, just below your elbow. A fracture is a break in your bone.

The most common cause of a radial head fracture is falling with an outstretched arm.

What to expect

You may have pain and swelling for 1 to 2 weeks.

If you have a small fracture and your bones did not move around much, you will likely wear a splint or sling that supports your arm, elbow, and forearm. You will probably need to wear this for at least 2 to 3 weeks.

If your break is more severe, you may need to see a bone doctor (orthopedic surgeon). Some fractures require surgery to:

  • Insert pins and plates to hold your bones in place
  • Replace the broken piece with a metal part
  • Repair torn ligaments (tissues that connect bones)

Depending on how severe your fracture is and on other factors, you may not have full range of motion after you recover. Most fractures heal well in 6 to 8 weeks.

Self-care at home

To help with pain and swelling:

  • Apply an ice pack to the injured area. To prevent skin injury, wrap the ice pack in a clean cloth before applying.
  • Keeping your arm at the level of your heart can also reduce swelling.

For pain, you can use ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), naproxen (Aleve, Naprosyn), or acetaminophen (Tylenol). You can buy these pain medicines without a prescription.

  • Talk with your health care provider before using these medicines if you have heart disease, high blood pressure, kidney disease, or have had stomach ulcers or internal bleeding in the past.
  • Do not take more than the amount recommended on the bottle.
  • Do not give aspirin to children.

Follow the instructions about your sling or splint that your health care provider gave you. Your health care provider will tell you when you can:

  • Start moving your shoulder, wrist, and fingers while wearing your sling or splint
  • Remove the splint to take a shower or bath

Keep your sling or splint dry.

Activity

You will also be told when you can remove your sling or splint and begin moving and using your elbow.

  • Using your elbow as early as you were told to may improve your range of motion after you recover.
  • Your doctor will tell you how much pain is normal as you begin using your elbow.
  • You may need physical therapy if you have a severe fracture.

Your doctor or physical therapist will tell you when you can start playing sports or using your elbow for other activities.

Follow-up

You will likely have a follow-up exam 1 to 3 weeks after your injury.

When to call the doctor

Call your doctor if:

  • Your elbow feels tight and painful
  • You feel tingling or numbness
  • Your skin is red, swollen, or you have an open sore
  • You have problems bending your elbow or lifting things after your sling or splint is removed

References

Prawer A. Radius and ulna fractures. In: Eiff M, Hatch R, eds. Fracture Management for Primary Care. 3rd ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2012:chap 6.


Review Date: 5/15/2014
Reviewed By: C. Benjamin Ma, MD, Assistant Professor, Chief, Sports Medicine and Shoulder Service, UCSF Department of Orthopaedic Surgery. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.
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