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What is Nursemaid's Elbow?

By O. Wallace
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Nursemaid’s elbow is a common injury among children ages one to four where their elbow becomes partly dislocated, and the forearm slips from the normal position in the elbow joint. The main causes of the injury include pulling child by the arm, the child falling while being held by the hand, picking up the child by one arm, or swinging a child by the arm(s).

It happens frequently in children because their joints and ligaments are not particularly strong, and are more prone to this type of injury. By five, ligaments and joints are usually stronger, and the incidence of nursemaid’s elbow decreases. Girls tend to have a slightly higher risk of getting nursemaid’s elbow, and both genders tend to get it on their left side more often than the right.

Nursemaid’s elbow, which may also be referred to as radial head dislocation, pulled elbow, elbow subluxation, dislocated elbow and toddler’s elbow, is not an unusual childhood injury, considering how much children are lifted by their arms. Parents dealing with children throwing tantrums may accidentally inflict the injury by holding on to their child’s arm while he throws himself on the ground. Symptoms of nursemaid’s elbow include pain in the elbow, which will most likely be manifested in the forearm. Parents often mistake the nursemaid’s elbow for an injury to the arm because the crying child may point out pain in the arm. The child will not want to use the arm, and will hold it at a slightly bent angle against the stomach. Although he can use the shoulder, he will most likely avoid using the elbow.

You should immediately apply ice to the affected elbow, carefully set the arm in a sling, and call your doctor. Your child may return to normal within half an hour to an hour and be none the worse for wear. If you feel that it is serious, and your child doesn’t feel better within an hour, you may want to visit your doctor or the emergency room. The nursemaid’s elbow may need to be treated by fixing the dislocated joint. Unless your child shows additional symptoms, however, x-rays and further treatment is usually not necessary. Although there is a slight chance of a recurring nursemaid’s elbow within the weeks following the initial injury, your child should fully recover and eventually grow out of being predisposed to it.

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Discussion Comments

By sputnik — On Dec 31, 2009

Sometimes a playful gesture can cause a serious problem. Swinging a child by the arms is not a good idea. If you must, hold the child's hand and put your other hand in the child's armpit for support.

Even though children like to be swung, use your judgment. Their ligaments and tendons are small and delicate. They can easily be hurt.

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