A radial head fracture is the most common type of elbow fracture. According to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, about 20% of the fractures affecting this joint involve the radial head, that is, the most proximal part in the elbow. An elbow fracture is almost always the result of a fall: “The trauma can be directly or indirectly associated with the elbow – explains Dr. Lorezno Di Mento, Trauma Surgeon at Humanitas. In fact, when you fall, you instinctively try to protect yourself by putting your hands forward. However, the trauma your hand experiences can also affect your elbow.”
The risk of experiencing a radial head fracture is likely for any individual – from an older individual to a younger individual who plays sports: “You have an increased risk of experiencing an elbow fracture if you play contact sports. This injury is more rarely seen in those who practice sports such as cycling or rugby – underlines Dr. Di Mento – because in such cases, the shoulder is more prone to injury.”
What to do after a fall
Pain is the most common symptom felt by a patient after a fall that directly or indirectly involves the elbow: “Unlike pain, swelling of the elbow is not always present, but the individual may have trouble moving the forearm. This is because the radius and ulna articulate with each other within the forearm and allow supination of the forearm, that is, the movement that allows us to turn a key or open a door handle.”
After the trauma, it is best to immobilize the joint ” with a simple bandage around the neck and then go to the emergency room to undergo an x-ray examination. This type of examination will provide valuable information on the extent of the damage suffered.”
A radial head fracture may be composed or multi-fragmentary. Depending on the type of fracture, treatment varies: “In the event of a broken fracture, surgery is performed. Surgery is performed – recalls the expert – even if the fracture is associated with other more complex lesions on the elbow.”
After how long will it be possible to regain full functionality of the elbow? “Healing times are similar for both surgical and conservative treatments, as they depend on the self-healing biological process of the bone. 6-8 weeks after the trauma, the patient can return to performing their normal daily activities.”
Recovery may be difficult in one particular case: “When the fracture is multi-fragmentary or surgical reduction is insufficient, it may limit pronosupination. If the fracture is composed or surgery leads to anatomic reduction, complete recovery is possible”. In the latter case, it is not helpful to keep the elbow locked in place. It is best to move the elbow and forearm as soon as possible in order to prevent joint stiffness” concludes Dr. Di Mento.