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What is Radial Head Pathology?

Picture of Radial Head Pathology

Radial head pathology can be defined as the study of causes and effects of conditions, fractures, or dislocations pertaining to the radial head.

The elbow joint is formed by the junction of the humerus (upper arm bone), and radius and ulna (forearm bones). The radius is the shorter of the two forearm bones and can be divided into the head, neck, and body. The radial head articulates with the humerus and ulna to form the elbow joint. When you reach out to try to break a fall, the head of the radius is often the area that fractures. Radial head fractures can cause severe impairment in the function of the elbow.

Causes of Radial Head Pathology

Fractures are the most common radial head pathology and occur in almost 20% of acute elbow injuries. Elbow dislocations are generally associated with radial head fractures. Radial head fractures are more common in women than in men and occur more frequently in the age group of 30 to 40 years. The most common cause of a radial head fracture is breaking a fall with an outstretched arm. Some of the other causes of radial head pathology include:

  • Disease conditions such as arthritis
  • Wear and tear
  • A direct impact on the elbow
  • A twisting injury
  • Sprains or strains
  • Ligament injuries
  • Joint instability

Signs and Symptoms of Radial Head Pathology

Signs and symptoms of radial head pathology may include:

  • Pain
  • Swelling
  • Bruising
  • Stiffness
  • Visible deformity
  • Difficulty in turning your forearm or moving your elbow

Diagnosis of Radial Head Pathology

In order to diagnose radial head pathology, your doctor will perform a thorough physical examination and order imaging studies such as X-rays and CT scans. X-rays may be ordered to confirm the fracture and assess displacement of the bone. The fracture is then classified according to severity to aid in appropriate treatment. CT scan may be ordered to obtain further details of the fracture and soft-tissue injuries, especially surrounding the joint surfaces.

Treatment of Radial Head Pathology

Small cracks in the radial head (type I fracture) are treated non-surgically with a splint and immobilized in a sling. A larger fracture with slight dislocation (type II fracture) is treated conservatively with splinting and immobilization, or surgically to remove bone fragments, fix the bones together with screws and a plate, and repair damaged soft tissues. In case of multiple fractures and significant injury to the joint and supporting ligaments (type III fracture), your surgeon will remove or fix the broken pieces and repair soft tissue damage, or replace a severely damaged radial head with a prosthesis. Following treatment, therapy involving stretching exercises should be performed to avoid stiffness of the elbow joint.

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Useful Links

  • Picture of American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons
  • Picture of American College of Sports Medicine
  • Picture of American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine
  • Picture of Arthroscopy Association of North America