• Clinical science

Elbow dislocation (Dislocation of the elbow…)


The elbow is the second most commonly dislocated joint after the shoulder. A fall on an outstretched hand is the usual mode of injury. Complex elbow dislocations have an associated fracture, while simple elbow dislocations do not. Clinical features include pain and swelling of the joint and an inability to flex/extend the elbow. Examination reveals a loss of the triangular orientation between the medial and lateral epicondyles of the humerus and the olecranon process of the ulna. X-rays of the elbow joint confirm a dislocation and may show a positive fat pad sign. Simple elbow dislocations can be managed conservatively with closed reduction and immobilization. Complex elbow dislocations require surgical intervention with open reduction and internal fixation. Complications of elbow dislocation include joint instability/contractures and heterotopic ossification.

Radial head subluxation is discussed in another learning card.


  • Second most frequently dislocated joint (after the shoulder joint)
  • Sex: >
  • Peak incidence: 10–20 years


Epidemiological data refers to the US, unless otherwise specified.


  • Trauma: typically from a fall with an outstretched hand



  • Anatomical classification
    • Posterior dislocation (most common: 90%)
    • Anterior dislocation


Clinical features





  • Conservative management
    • Indication: simple elbow dislocation (no fracture)
    • Procedure: closed reduction
    • Immobilization of the relocated elbow in a posterior splint or brace
  • Surgical intervention
    • Indication: complex elbow dislocation (concomitant fracture); failed closed reduction; joint instability post-reduction; vascular injury
    • Procedure:
      1. Closed reduction of elbow
      2. Open reduction and internal fixation of the fractured segments
    • Immobilization of the elbow in a posterior splint or brace



We list the most important complications. The selection is not exhaustive.