Elbow Replacement

Elbow replacement surgery is a complicated procedure partly because the elbow has several moving parts that balance each other with great precision to control the movements of your forearm.

Your elbow can be damaged by problems ranging from rheumatoid arthritis to traumatic fractures. In some cases, the damage can be surgically repaired. But if the damage is extensive, your doctor might recommend elbow replacement surgery. Pain is the most common reason people choose to have elbow replacement surgery.

Types of Elbow Replacement

In some cases, you may need a replacement of just one portion of the joint. For example, if only the head of one of your forearm bones (radius) is damaged, it can be replaced with an artificial head.

If the entire joint needs to be replaced, the ends of the bones that come together in the elbow will be removed. Bones are hard tubes that contain a soft center. The long, slender ends of the artificial joint are inserted into the softer central part of the bones.

There are two main types of prosthetic devices available:

  • This type of prosthesis acts somewhat like a loose hinge because all the parts of the replacement joint are connected. This provides good joint stability, but the stresses of movement can sometimes result in the prosthesis working itself loose from where it’s inserted into the arm bones.
  • This type of device comes in two separate pieces that aren’t connected to each other. This design depends on the surrounding ligaments to help hold the joint together, which can make it more prone to dislocation.

What to Expect

Elbow replacement surgery takes about 2 hours. You’ll get anesthesia, so you won’t be “awake” for it. You’ll need to stay in the hospital for up to 4 days.

After the operation, you’ll have stitches and a bandage on your new elbow. You may also need to keep your arm in a splint to keep it stable while it heals.

Because elbow replacement involves cutting skin, tendons, and bone, you’ll need strong pain medications after surgery. You’ll also take pain meds for 1 to 2 weeks after you go home from the hospital.

It will take time to get used to your new elbow. For instance, you won’t be able to lift anything heavier than a cup of coffee for 6 weeks after surgery. It’s a good idea to line up help ahead of time.

What to Do Before the Operation

Your doctor will ask you about your medical history. Tell them about any conditions you have, including allergies.

Also let your doctor know if you drink alcohol and what medicines you take. She also needs to know about any vitamins, supplements, or herbal products you use.

If you smoke, you should stop before your surgery.

Recovery and Physical Therapy

You’ll learn simple exercises and other types of physical therapy to help your arm get stronger and move better. You’ll do “range of motion” exercises, such as bending and straightening your arm.

Elbow replacement usually reduces pain and helps your elbow work better. But it may not make the joint as good as it was before disease or injury hurt it.

You’ll need to avoid activities that can cause further injury, such as hammering, playing contact sports, and lifting heavy weights. With good care, your new elbow should serve you well for many years.