Dr. Dharmapal G. K. The Best Orthopaedic Surgeon in Bengaluru

Distal Humerus Fractures of the Elbow

Distal-Humerus-Fractures-of-the-Elbow

A distal humerus fracture is a break in the lower end of the upper arm bone (humerus), one of the three bones that come together to form the elbow joint. A fracture in this area can be very painful and make elbow motion difficult or impossible.

Most distal humerus fractures are caused by some type of high-energy event—such as receiving a direct blow to the elbow during a car collision. In an older person who has weaker bones, however, even a minor fall may be enough to cause a fracture.

Treatment for a distal humerus fracture usually involves surgery to restore the normal anatomy and motion of the elbow.

Anatomy

Your elbow is a joint made up of three bones:

  • The humerus (upper arm bone)
  • The radius (forearm bone on the thumb side)
  • The ulna (forearm bone on the pinky side)

The elbow joint bends and straightens like a hinge. It is also important for rotation of the forearm; that is, the ability to turn your hand palm up (like accepting change from a cashier) or palm down (like typing or playing the piano).

 
The bones, nerves, and ligaments of the elbow

(Left) The bones of the elbow. The “distal humerus” is the lower end of the humerus (upper arm bone). (Right) The major nerves and ligaments of the elbow are highlighted.

The elbow consists of portions of all three bones:

  • The distal humerus is the lower end of the humerus. It forms the upper part of the elbow and is the spool around which the forearm bends and straightens.
  • The radial head is the knobby end of the radius where it meets the elbow. It glides up and down the front of the distal humerus when you bend your arm and rotates around the ulna when you turn your wrist up or down.
  • The olecranon is the part of the ulna that “cups” the lower end of the humerus, creating a hinge for elbow movement. The bony “point” of the olecranon can be easily felt beneath the skin because it is covered by just a thin layer of tissue.

The elbow is held together by its bony architecture, as well as ligaments, tendons, and muscles. Three major nerves cross the elbow joint.

Description

 
A comminuted distal humerus fracture

It is common for the distal humerus to break into several pieces. This is called a “comminuted fracture.”

A distal humerus fracture occurs when there is a break anywhere within the distal region (lower end) of the humerus. The bone can crack just slightly or break into many pieces (comminuted fracture). The broken pieces of bone may line up straight or may be far out of place (displaced fracture).

In some cases, the bone breaks in such a way that bone fragments stick out through the skin or a wound penetrates down to the bone. This is called an open fracture. Open fractures are particularly serious because, once the skin is broken, infection in both the wound and the bone is more likely to occur. Immediate treatment is required to prevent infection.

Distal humerus fractures are uncommon; they account for just about 2 percent of all adult fractures. They can occur on their own, with no other injuries, but can also be a part of a more complex elbow injury.

Cause

Distal humerus fractures are most often caused by:

  • Falling directly on the elbow
  • Receiving a direct blow to the elbow from something hard, like a baseball bat or a dashboard or car door during a vehicle collision
  • Falling on an outstretched arm with the elbow held tightly to brace against the fall. In this situation, the ulna (one of the forearm bones) is driven into the distal humerus and this causes it to break.

Distal humerus fractures are also sometimes caused by weak or insufficient bone. This is most common in older patients whose bones have become weakened by osteoporosis. In these patients, a fracture may occur even after a minor fall.

Symptoms

A distal humerus fracture may be very painful and can prevent you from moving your elbow. Other signs and symptoms of a fracture may include:

  • Swelling
  • Bruising
  • Tenderness to the touch
  • Stiffness
  • A feeling of instability in the joint, as if your elbow is going to “pop out”
  • In rare cases, the fractured bone may stick out of the skin (open fracture)

Doctor Examination

Most patients with distal humerus fractures will go to an urgent care center or emergency room for initial treatment.

Physical Examination

Your doctor will talk with you about your medical history and general health and ask about your symptoms. He or she will then examine your elbow to determine the extent of the injury. During the exam, your doctor will:

  • Check your skin for cuts and lacerations. In severe fractures, bone fragments can break through the skin, increasing the risk of infection.
  • Palpate (feel) all around your elbow to determine if there are any other areas of tenderness. This could indicate other broken bones or injuries, such as a dislocated elbow.
  • Check your pulse at the wrist to ensure that there is good blood flow to your hand and fingers.
  • Check to see that you can move your fingers and wrist, and can feel things with your fingers. In some cases, the ulnar nerve may be injured at the same time the fracture occurs. This can result in weakness and numbness in the ring and small fingers.

Although you may have pain only at the elbow, your doctor may also examine your shoulder, upper arm, forearm, wrist, and hand to ensure that you do not have any other injuries.

Tests

X-rays

X-rays provide images of dense structures, such as bone. Your doctor will order x-rays of your elbow to help diagnose your fracture.

Depending on your symptoms, your doctor may also order x-rays of your upper arm, forearm, shoulder, wrist, and/or hand to ensure that you do not have any other injuries.

 
X-rays of a normal elbow and a displaced elbow fracture

(Left) X-ray of a healthy elbow. (Right) This x-ray shows a distal humerus fracture that is severely out of place (displaced).

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