An olecranon fracture is a break at the base of the elbow joint. The ulna bone stretches from the wrist to the back of the elbow, where a section called the olecranon forms the familiar bony protrusion. An olecranon fracture usually occurs with a fall or a direct blow to the end of the elbow, resulting in severe, immediate pain and swelling. Most fractures are treated conservatively by placing the arm in a sling or soft cast and waiting for bones to heal themselves. Severe olecranon fractures and joint dislocations necessitate surgery to correct tissue damage.
The olecranon itself is a robust section of bone, but it is still highly susceptible to fractures due to its proximity in the body. The bone is not well protected by surrounding tissue, and it is a very common site of trauma in active people. An olecranon fracture can result from a direct blow from a blunt object, a fall where most of the impact is absorbed by the elbow, or an awkward bending or twisting motion that dislocates the joint. Adult athletes who play contact sports are at the highest risk of acquiring olecranon fractures. Elderly people are also at risk, as their bones are generally more brittle and they may be more likely to suffer falls.
An olecranon fracture typically results in sudden pain that may be soon be accompanied by light-headedness and nausea. The elbow joint swells and the person is unable to move his or her arm. In the event of an elbow injury, it is very important to immobilize the joint with a sling until professional medical care can be sought. An individual should be brought to an emergency room immediately to receive a correct diagnosis and pain management medication.
Upon admittance into an emergency room, a doctor will usually administer oral or injected medicine to ease symptoms of pain and swelling. The physician can take x-rays and magnetic resonance imaging scans of the elbow to determine the exact location and severity of the break. Most olecranon fractures do not result in severe damage to the bone or surrounding structures. Patients simply need to wear slings or braces for several weeks and receive regular checkups with a doctor to ensure that bones are healing correctly. A sling can be removed in about two months, at which time a patient may need to perform exercises or attend physical therapy to regain strength.
An olecranon fracture is considered serious if the bone shatters into small pieces or it dislocates from the elbow joint. Surgery is usually necessary in the case of serious fractures. A skilled surgeon can make an incision in the elbow, remove shards of bone, suture damaged tissue, and realign the olecranon into place. Some breaks require the placement of screws or artificial material to help secure the bone. Physical therapy is important to help patients build strength and flexibility following surgical procedures.