The radius bone goes from your elbow to your wrist. The radial head is at the top of the radius bone, just below your elbow. A fracture is a break in your bone.
The most common cause of a radial head fracture is falling with an outstretched arm.
What to Expect
You may have pain and swelling for 1 to 2 weeks.
If you have a small fracture and your bones did not move around much, you will likely wear a splint or sling that supports your arm, elbow, and forearm. You will probably need to wear this for at least 2 to 3 weeks.
If your break is more severe, you may need to see a bone doctor (orthopedic surgeon). Some fractures require surgery to:
- Insert screws and plates to hold your bones in place
- Replace the broken piece with a metal part or replacement
- Repair torn ligaments (tissues that connect bones)
Depending on how severe your fracture is and on other factors, you may not have full range of motion after you recover. Most fractures heal well in 6 to 8 weeks.
Self-care at Home
To help with pain and swelling:
- Apply an ice pack to the injured area. To prevent skin injury, wrap the ice pack in a clean cloth before applying.
- Keeping your arm at the level of your heart can also reduce swelling.
For pain, you can use ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), naproxen (Aleve, Naprosyn), or acetaminophen (Tylenol). You can buy these pain medicines without a prescription.
- Talk with your health care provider before using these medicines if you have heart disease, high blood pressure, kidney disease, or have had stomach ulcers or internal bleeding in the past.
- Do not take more than the amount recommended on the bottle.
- Do not give aspirin to children.
Follow your provider's instructions about using your sling or splint. Your provider will tell you when you can:
- Start moving your shoulder, wrist, and fingers while wearing your sling or splint
- Remove the splint to take a shower or bath
Keep your sling or splint dry.
You will also be told when you can remove your sling or splint and begin moving and using your elbow.
- Using your elbow as early as you were told to may improve your range of motion after you recover.
- Your provider will tell you how much pain is normal as you begin using your elbow.
- You may need physical therapy if you have a severe fracture.
Your provider or physical therapist will tell you when you can start playing sports or using your elbow for other activities.
You will likely have a follow-up exam 1 to 3 weeks after your injury.
When to Call the Doctor
Call your provider if:
- Your elbow feels tight and painful
- Your elbow feels unstable and feels like it is catching
- You feel tingling or numbness
- Your skin is red, swollen, or you have an open sore
- You have problems bending your elbow or lifting things after your sling or splint is removed
Elbow fracture - radial head - aftercare
King GJW. Fractures of the radial head. In: Wolfe SW, Hotchkiss RN, Pederson WC, Kozin SH, Cohen MS, eds. Green's Operative Hand Surgery. 7th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2017:chap 19.
Ozgur SE, Giangarra CE. Rehabilitation after fractures of the forearm and elbow. In: Giangarra CE, Manske RC, eds. Clinical Orthopaedic Rehabilitation: A Team Approach. 4th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2018:chap 12.
Ramsey ML, Beredjilian PK. Surgery Management of Fractures, Dislocations, and Traumatic Instability of the Elbow. In: Skirven TM, Oserman AL, Fedorczyk JM, Amadiao PC, Feldscher SB, Shin EK, eds. Rehabilitation of the Hand and Upper Extremity. 7th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2021:chap 66.
Review Date 7/8/2020
Updated by: C. Benjamin Ma, MD, Professor, Chief, Sports Medicine and Shoulder Service, UCSF Department of Orthopaedic Surgery, San Francisco, CA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.