Posterior Elbow Dislocation

Definition/Description[edit | edit source]

Posterior elbow dislocation (PED) occurs when the radius and ulna are forcefully driven posteriorly to the humerus.

Specifically, the olecranon process of the ulna moves into the olecranon fossa of the humerus and the trochlea of the humerus is displaced over the coronoid process of the ulna. PED is classified as simple or complex and staged according to severity.[1]

Epidemiology /Etiology[edit | edit source]

In children under 10 years, PEDs are the most common type of joint dislocation.[1] 

In adults, they are the second most commonly dislocated joint proceeded by shoulder dislocations.[1][2][3][4]

Elbow dislocations annually affect between 6 and 7 people per 100,000.[3] Approximately 90% of all elbow dislocations are directionally classified as posterior or posterolateral and are more commonly seen in the non-dominant upper limb.[1][2][3] 

Typically, elbow dislocation is caused by a traumatic fall onto an outstretched hand resulting in an hyper-extension injury.[4] However, more recent research has suggested that axial compression, elbow flexion, valgus stress, and forearm supination lead to a rotational displacement of the ulna on the distal humerus.[1] If there is not sufficient valgus/varus distraction on the joint at the time of trauma it is likely a coronoid fracture will also occur.[5] 

Most commonly, the dislocation is associated with a damaged or torn anterior capsule.[6][7]

Classification[edit | edit source]

PED can be classified as simple or complex.[8]

  1. A simple dislocation is classified as a dislocation without the presence of a fracture.
  2. A complex dislocation has related fractures.[3] 
    • Fractures may exist on the radial head, coronoid process, olecranon, humeral condyles, or capitellum.[6] 
    • These fractures may lead to disruption of the medial collateral ligament (MCL), lateral collateral ligament (LCL), or interosseous membrane.[6] 
    • 'Terrible triad' is a term used to describe a severe complex dislocation with intra-articular fractures of the radial head and coronoid process.[3] Elbow dislocations are staged depending on the disruption of the following stabilizers: the ulnohumeral articulation, MCL, and LCL.[6]

Characteristics/Clinical Presentation[edit | edit source]

The clinical presentation may include:

  • Instability[2]
  • Popping sensation on immediate injury[1]
  • Pain
  • Weakness
  • Reduced AROM[8]
  • Swelling - the olecranon may be prominent creating a divot over distal triceps[9]
  • Joint line tenderness on palpation
  • Recurrent dislocations can occur if a ligament injury is also sustained[3]

Differential Diagnosis[edit | edit source]

To diagnose PED, radiographs in the anterior, posterior, and lateral views with valgus stress are obtained.[2]

Table 1:[10][6][11] below depicts other injuries that should be considered when suspecting PED.

   Diagnosis                    Cause Examination Findings

Posterolateral Rotary

Insufficiency of the ulnar LCL
  1. Valgus instability
  2. Positive lateral pivot-shift test
  3. Recurrent dislocations
Associated Fracture

Traumatic forces through radial head, humeral condyles, coronoid process, olecranon, or capitellum

  1. Radiographic diagnostics
  2. Tenderness over fracture sight.
  3. Positive Elbow Extension Sign
Compartment Syndrome Fractures, swelling, casting, trauma
  1. Pain out of proportion to the injury
  2. Absent pulse
  3. Pallor
  4. Paresthesia
  5. Paralysis
Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS) Unknown
  1. Persistent pain after injury,
  2. Swelling
  3. Hypersensitivity
  4. Change in skin colour/texture,
  5. Reduced ROM
  6. Weakness

Examination[edit | edit source]

Physiotherapy Examination[edit | edit source]

Physical therapy examination should include:

  • Observation - specifically deformities
  • Vascular screen - palpation of brachial, radial and ulnar arteries
  • Neuromuscular screen - dermatomes, myotomes and reflexes including upper limb neuro-tension tests (if tolerated by patient)
  • Palpation - It is essential to palpate for associated fractures in the elbow complex. The elbow extension sign can be used to rule out a fracture.
  • ROM
  • Muscle testing
  • Ligament integrity tests - varus and valgus stress test, the lateral pivot-shift test/ apprehension test (Posterolateral Rotational Instability Test).

Medical Management[edit | edit source]

Before surgery is considered, research indicates reduction under local or general anaesthetic as the primary treatment for PED.[12][6][7][9][13] 

Radiographs are indicated when there is no response to care after four weeks of conservative treatment, significant activity restriction for more than four weeks, or non-mechanical pain is present.[14] 

Prior to the decision to surgically manage these factors are considered:[14][9]

  • Pain
  • Irreducible dislocation
  • Instability (recurrent instability may indicate a ligamentus repair[10]
  • Elbow stiffness
  • Fractures
  • Neuro-vascular injury

The most common surgical options include an open procedure, and excision or closed arthroplasty.[6][7][9]
An open procedure, more likely when fractures are involved, can include:

  • Ulnar nerve release,
  • Humeroulnar reduction
  • Humeroradial reduction,
  • Triceps lengthening using Speed's procedure
  • Wires and/or screws placed in the olecranon for stabilising the joint.[9]
  • Ligamentus repairs with sutures

Once surgery is complete, the patient is typically immobilised with time frames varying based on the individual and the surgeon's protocol.[6][7][9] Some patients may be allowed to actively move the elbow immediately post op, however this will depend on the surgeon.[15]

Hinged braces, fixators, plaster casts, and slings are utilised to keep the elbow in a position of approximately 70-80o of flexion and slight pronation.

Physiotherapy Management[edit | edit source]

While conservative treatment approaches to PED can vary depending on the level of tissue involvement, there are key elements to consider throughout the clinical decision-making process. PED can occur on a continuum of severity; therefore, the treatment must be diverse as well.

Treatment can vary from aggressive immediate AROM to traditional plaster immobilisation for several days depending on orthopaedic intervention.[12][13] If a fracture occurs secondary to dislocation, intra-articular bone fragments and fracture position may dictate treatment.[8]  

Following a typical reduction with no fracture:

  1. Immobilisation: typically involves the use of a posterior splint at 45-90o of elbow flexion[1][2][4][16] for three days to three weeks.[2][12][6][17][15]Throughout the immobilisation phase, wrist and shoulder function should be maintained through ROM and strengthening exercises.[12] Inflammation is a common following PED and can be addressed using PRICE protocols.[4][15][17] 
  2. After the immobilisation phase physiotherapy begins with gentle AROM and PROM exercises in a pain-free range targeting the entire upper limb.[2][3][12][13]
  3. When pain is no longer a barrier to treatment, functional progressive resistance exercises should be implemented to improve total upper limb muscle strength and endurance.[1][4]
  4. Therapeutic goals in the later phase of rehabilitation include attaining full ROM and strength capabilities of the entire affected arm, suppression of pain, and restoration of functional abilities to pre-injury level.[1][4]
  5. A patient is able to return to functional activities around twelve weeks and sports around six months.[6] 

Complications post reduction[edit | edit source]

There can be detrimental effects of prolonged immobilisation including flexion contractures, enhanced perception of pain, and increased duration of disability, all of which prolong the rehabilitation process.[1][4][13][18][19] 

When treating a post-surgical PED patient, physical therapists should be cautious of pin site infection.[9] 

Although full extension should be a goal of rehabilitation, care must be taken to protect the vulnerable elbow and avoid hyperextension. It is important to be cautious during passive mobilisation and ROM.

Resources[edit | edit source]

American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons


Clinical Bottom Line[edit | edit source]

Since the elbow joint is one of the more commonly dislocated joints[1][2][3][4][12], it is imperative that physiotherapist are aware of its complications and the best evidence for treatment.

It is important to explore the level of severity and degree of complication associated with each PED since this dictates the patients' prognoses. Patients who have had simple PED with early reduction usually have good outcomes.

In most cases, there is potential for developing instability and degenerative joint disease.[2] 

Overall the best treatment for PED is initial short term restricted ROM (usually two weeks or less) followed by early mobilisation including PROM, progressing to AROM and functional strengthening. This can allow for more rapid return to work and or sport.[19]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. 1.00 1.01 1.02 1.03 1.04 1.05 1.06 1.07 1.08 1.09 1.10 Uhl T, Gould M, Gieck J. Rehabilitation after posterolateral dislocation of the elbow in a collegiate football player: A case report. J Athl Training; Jan 2000;35(1):108-110.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6 2.7 2.8 Eygendaal D, Verdegaal SHM, Obermann WR, Van Vugt AB, Poll RG, Rozing PM. Posterolateral dislocation of the elbow joint: relationship to medial instability. J of Bone and Joint Surg, 82-A(4): 555-560, 2000.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 3.6 3.7 Haan J, Schep NWL, Tuinebreijer WE, Patka P, Hartog D. Simple elbow dislocations: a systematic review of the literature. Arch Orthop Trauma Surg. 2010:130:241-249.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 4.5 4.6 4.7 Blackard D, Sampson JA. Management of an uncomplicated posterior elbow dislocation. Journal of athletic training. 1997 Jan;32(1):63.
  5. Rhyou IH, Kim YS. New mechanism of the posterior elbow dislocation. Knee Surgery, Sports Traumatology, Arthroscopy. 2012 Dec 1;20(12):2535-41.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 6.4 6.5 6.6 6.7 6.8 6.9 O’Driscoll SW, Jupiter JB, King GJW, Hotchkiss RN, Morrey BF. The unstable elbow. J Bone Joint Surg. 2000;82-A(5):724-738.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 Josefsson PO, Gentz CF, Johnell O, Wendeberg B. Surgical versus non-surgical treatment of ligamentous injuries following dislocation of the elbow joint. A prospective randomized study. The Journal of bone and joint surgery. American volume. 1987 Apr;69(4):605-8.
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 Martín JR, Mazzini JP. Posterolateral elbow dislocation with entrapment of the medial epicondyle in children: a case report. Cases journal. 2009 Dec;2(1):6603.
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 9.4 9.5 9.6 Elzohairy MM. Neglected posterior dislocation of the elbow. Injury. 2009 Feb 1;40(2):197-200.
  10. 10.0 10.1 van Riet RP. Assessment and decision making in the unstable elbow: management of simple dislocations. Shoulder & elbow. 2017 Apr;9(2):136-43.
  11. O'driscoll SW, Bell DF, Morrey BF. Posterolateral rotatory instability of the elbow. The Journal of bone and joint surgery. American volume. 1991 Mar;73(3):440-6.
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 12.3 12.4 12.5 Lasanianos N, Garnavos C. An unusual case of elbow dislocation. Orthopedics. 2008 Aug 1;31(8).
  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2 13.3 Maripuri SN, Debnath UK, Rao P, Mohanty K. Simple elbow dislocation among adults: a comparative study of two different methods of treatment. Injury. 2007 Nov 1;38(11):1254-8.
  14. 14.0 14.1 Bussières AE, Peterson C, Taylor JA. Diagnostic imaging guideline for musculoskeletal complaints in adults—an evidence-based approach—part 2: upper extremity disorders. Journal of Manipulative & Physiological Therapeutics. 2008 Jan 1;31(1):2-32.
  15. 15.0 15.1 15.2 Ross G, McDevitt ER, Chronister R, Ove PN. Treatment of simple elbow dislocation using an immediate motion protocol. The American journal of sports medicine. 1999 May;27(3):308-11.
  16. Schneeberger AG, Sadowski MM, Jacob HAC. J Bone Joint Surgery AM. 2004;86;975-982.
  17. 17.0 17.1 Ring D, Jupiter JB, Zilberfarb J. Posterior dislocation of the elbow with fractures of the radial head and coronoid. JBJS. 2002 Apr 1;84(4):547-51.
  18. Rafai M, Largab A, Cohen D, Trafeh M. Pure posterior luxation of the elbow in adults: immobilization or early mobilization. A randomized prospective study of 50 cases. Chirurgie de la main. 1999;18(4):272-8..
  19. 19.0 19.1 Iordens GI, Van Lieshout EM, Schep NW, De Haan J, Tuinebreijer WE, Eygendaal D, Van Beeck E, Patka P, Verhofstad MH, Den Hartog D. Early mobilisation versus plaster immobilisation of simple elbow dislocations: results of the FuncSiE multicentre randomised clinical trial. Br J Sports Med. 2017 Mar 1;51(6):531-8.