Radial Head Dislocation

Ovid: 5-Minute Orthopaedic Consult

Editors: Frassica, Frank J.; Sponseller, Paul D.; Wilckens, John H.
Title: 5-Minute Orthopaedic Consult, 2nd Edition
> Table of Contents > Radial Head Dislocation

Radial Head Dislocation
Paul D. Sponseller MD
  • Isolated traumatic dislocation of the
    radial head is a rare injury seen mainly in children, although several
    reports have described this injury in adults (13).
  • Congenital and developmental radial head
    dislocations are seen more commonly, although they rarely are seen in
    the absence of other congenital abnormalities of the elbow or forearm.
  • The radial head may be dislocated anteriorly, anterolaterally, posteriorly, or posterolaterally.
  • Classification:
    • Direction of radial head displacement: Anterior, posterior, or lateral
    • Pathogenesis: Traumatic, congenital, or pathologic
Radial head dislocations are uncommon injuries, usually occurring with an associated ulna fracture.
Risk Factors
  • OI
  • Fibrous dysplasia
  • Osteochondromas
  • Achondroplasia
  • Congenital forearm synostosis
No genetic inheritance pattern for radial head
dislocation is known, but because the main restraints to radial head
dislocation in the normal elbow are ligamentous, children with
ligamentous laxity (e.g., achondroplasia) may have a predisposition to
such conditions without associated fractures.
  • In the normal elbow, the critical restraint to radial head dislocation is the annular ligament.
    • This ligament usually is torn or severely stretched in the case of a dislocation.
  • In the congenitally dislocated radial head, a hypoplastic capitellum and an ovoid radial head are essentially pathognomonic.
  • Proximal ulnar bowing also is evident on radiographs, although this finding is not unique to the congenital dislocation.
The mechanism of injury is believed to be a fall onto
the outstretched hand with the elbow extended and the forearm pronated,
resulting in a varus stress on the elbow.
Associated Conditions
  • In the setting of trauma, this injury may
    be associated with a proximal ulna fracture, a radial neck fracture, or
    an elbow dislocation.
  • Isolated radial head dislocations,
    particularly posterior dislocations, may be associated with radial
    nerve or posterior interosseous nerve stretch injuries.
Signs and Symptoms
  • Pain, swelling, and decreased supination or pronation of the forearm are the main symptoms of the traumatic dislocation.
  • The congenitally dislocated radial head:
    • Normally is painless in childhood, although it usually is discovered in the young child after elbow trauma
    • Also may come to attention secondary to a painless lateral prominence in the setting of a posterolateral dislocation
Physical Exam
  • Perform a complete neurovascular examination at presentation and before undertaking any manipulations.
  • Examine the function of the radial nerve because it may have undergone traction injury.
  • Perform an examination of the
    contralateral elbow to rule out bilateral radial head dislocations,
    which may suggest a congenital dislocation and pre-existing disease in
    the affected elbow.
  • On physical examination, hold the elbow immobile and flexed with the forearm in pronation.
    • The child often refuses to use the injured arm.
    • The radial head usually can be palpated,
      particularly with posterior and posterolateral dislocations, in which
      there is little overlying soft tissue.
    • Nearly full flexion and extension usually
      are noted, although some limitation often exists at 1 extreme,
      depending on the direction of the dislocation (mildly limited flexion
      if anteriorly dislocated and extension if posteriorly dislocated).
    • Supination and pronation are markedly limited and cause pain.
  • Radiography:
    • AP and lateral radiographs of the elbow usually are sufficient for making the diagnosis and for assessing reduction.
    • A separate film of the forearm usually is
      helpful to look for ulnar bowing or shortening, which may contribute to
      the dislocation.
    • Abnormalities of the capitellum and radial head may suggest a congenital dislocation.
    • Radiographs of the contralateral elbow
      should be obtained to rule out bilateral involvement, which also would
      indicate a congenital dislocation.
    • Congenital dislocations may be associated
      with a dysplastic capitellum, a bowed ulna, a relatively long radius,
      or an ovoid radial head, but a long-standing traumatic dislocation may
      have similar radiographic findings unilaterally.
    • Heterotopic ossification in the soft tissues about the radial head may suggest an old, unreduced traumatic dislocation.
  • Some authors advocate elbow arthrograms
    if it is difficult in young children to distinguish between congenital
    and traumatic causes (4,5).
    • A congenital dislocation would show an ovoid radial head within the joint capsule.
    • A traumatic dislocation would be associated with a normally shaped radial head.
    • In the acute situation, extravasation of the arthrogram’s contrast agent occurs.
Differential Diagnosis
  • Subluxated elbow
  • Congenital dislocation
  • Monteggia fracture with an occult fracture
  • Radial neck fracture
  • Generalized disorder (OI, fibrous dysplasia, osteochondromas)
General Measures
  • It is important to distinguish a traumatic from a congenital dislocation because the latter does not require treatment.
  • If the condition is judged to be an
    acute, traumatic dislocation, closed reduction usually can be performed
    in the acute setting.
    • With gentle traction and the elbow in full extension, varus stress is applied to the elbow joint.
    • The forearm is supinated while direct pressure is applied to the radial head to reduce it.
    • The reduction then is held in 120° of flexion for children (90° and in supination for adults).
    • A posterior splint usually suffices, although a bivalved cast may be necessary in the young child who may remove the splint.
  • If the injury is >7 days old, open reduction may be necessary if closed reduction is unsuccessful.
    • After 3 weeks, a successful closed reduction is impossible, and open technique is universally required.
    • For long-standing traumatic dislocations
      (>2–3 years), deformation of the radial head and capitellum may
      occur, which would preclude a stable reduction.
Special Therapy
Physical Therapy
  • Full, pain-free ROM of the elbow (flexion, extension, supination, and pronation) are the goals of treatment of this injury.
  • Elbow ROM exercises are begun as early as possible without compromising the stability of the joint.
  • The pediatric elbow is more forgiving than the adult’s with respect to regaining full ROM after prolonged immobilization.


First Line
  • Symptomatic treatment for pain is suggested.
  • Analgesia is a necessary part of rehabilitation after surgery or cast immobilization.
  • In a patient with a history of
    heterotopic ossification or neurologic injury (which may predispose to
    heterotopic ossification), prophylaxis with indomethacin may decrease
    the incidence of heterotopic ossification of the elbow (1,6).
  • In the unstable reduction, a prolonged
    period of immobilization may be necessary to allow for fibrous tissue
    to confer stability.
    • Occasionally, the immobilization may be augmented by a Kirschner wire across the radiocapitellar joint.
  • When elbow contractures are of concern
    (in patients >30 years old, particularly the elderly) or in patients
    with long-standing dislocations, a radial head resection may be
    performed to begin early ROM of the elbow.
  • With open reduction of the radiocapitellar joint, most surgeons advocate repair or reconstruction of the annular ligament.
    • May be performed successfully up to 2 years or more after traumatic dislocation
    • Any ulnar bowing should be addressed at the same time.
  • The prognosis is excellent for a functional ROM of the elbow, forearm, and wrist, particularly in patients <30 years old.
  • Mild ROM restrictions may be present compared with the contralateral side but usually none that would be noted by the patient.
  • Recurrent dislocations
  • Decreased ROM secondary to contracture or heterotopic ossification
  • Radial or posterior interosseous nerve palsies and degenerative changes of the radiohumeral joint
Patient Monitoring
Patients are followed at 1-month intervals until they regain their ROM.
1. Belangero WD, Livani B, Zogaib RK. Treatment of chronic radial head dislocations in children. Int Orthop 2006; Epub (DOI: 10.1007/s00264-006-0153–4):1–4.
2. Burgess RC, Sprague HH. Post-traumatic posterior radial head subluxation. Two case reports. Clin Orthop Relat Res 1984;186:192–194.
3. Salama R, Wientroub S, Weissman SL. Recurrent dislocation of the head of the radius. Clin Orthop Relat Res 1977;125:156–158.
4. Thompson
GH. Dislocations of the elbow. In: Beaty JH, Kasser JR, eds. Rockwood
and Wilkins’ Fractures in Children, 5th ed. Philadelphia:
Lippincott-Raven, 2001:705–739.
5. Beaty
JH, Kasser JR. The elbow: Physeal fractures, apophyseal injuries of the
distal humerus, avascular necrosis of the trochlea, and T-condylar
fractures. In: Beaty JH, Kasser JR, eds. Rockwood and Wilkins’
Fractures in Children, 5th ed. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams &
Wilkins, 2001:625–703.
6. Kim
HT, Park BG, Suh JT, et al. Chronic radial head dislocation in
children, Part 2: Results of open treatment and factors affecting final
outcome. J Pediatr Orthop 2002;22:591–597.
832.9 Dislocation of radial head
Patient Teaching
  • Patients are instructed on the need for home ROM exercises.
  • Patients also are told that they may lose 10° of elbow extension.
Q: What are the signs of a radial head dislocation?
A: A bony prominence anteriorly (with block to full flexion) or posteriorly (with block to full extension).

Q: Is surgery indicated for a radial head dislocation?
Usually a closed reduction can be undertaken within the 1st few weeks
after injury. If closed reduction fails, or the dislocation is detected
late, then surgery is indicated.

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