What is nursemaid's elbow?

Nursemaid's elbow in children: Overview

Your child has an injury called nursemaid's elbow. Nursemaid's elbow occurs when one of the bones in the forearm slips out of position at the elbow. It can happen during play or when an adult pulls a child up over a curb or other obstacle. It also can happen when a child's hand is pulled through the sleeve of a sweater or coat. Nursemaid's elbow is common in children between ages 1 and 4. As children grow, their arms get stronger and they no longer get this type of injury.

The doctor may have moved the elbow back in place. This injury usually heals quickly and without permanent damage.

What are the symptoms of nursemaid's elbow?

Symptoms of nursemaid's elbow include:

  • Refusal to move the arm. Your child may keep the arm dangling down the side of their body. Sometimes the dangling arm turns slightly inward (pronates).
  • Crying. Your child may cry from the pain and because they are scared.
  • Pain anywhere between the hand and shoulder.

Medical attention is needed if your child has symptoms of nursemaid's elbow.

How is nursemaid's elbow treated?

Nursemaid's elbow should be treated by a doctor.

Allow your child to keep the arm in the most comfortable position until you get medical help.

You can also put an ice pack on your child's elbow. But if your child resists, don't insist. Be careful not to move your child's arm from the most comfortable position.

A doctor will move your child's arm to free the trapped ligament and put the end of the radius back into its normal position. Usually, children start to feel better right away. But sometimes the pain lingers for a bit. It may take from 30 minutes to a few hours for your child to move the arm normally.

The doctor may place a sling or splint on your child's arm until all pain is gone. If your child can move the arm normally without pain soon after treatment, a sling or a splint is not needed.

How is nursemaid's elbow diagnosed?

Your doctor usually suspects the injury from your report of how it happened, your child's symptoms, and results of the physical exam. The doctor will feel different areas of the arm and try to move it into certain positions. Usually X-rays of the elbow are not needed. But your doctor may order one to find out if your child has a more serious injury.

How can you care for nursemaid's elbow at home?

Although your child heals quickly, they have a greater chance of having nursemaid's elbow again, especially in the first few weeks after being injured.

  • Be careful in how you hold or lift your child. When you lift or swing your child, hold them under the arms. This includes when you lift your child up onto a higher surface (such as a sidewalk or equipment at a playground).
  • Use care when walking with your child as you hold their hand or lower arm (forearm). If a child pulls back or resists, stop. Don't pull your child. Wait until your child is ready to go with you without resistance. If this is not possible, pick up your child.

Be sure to follow your doctor's directions on how to care for your child after nursemaid's elbow.

What is nursemaid's elbow?

Nursemaid's elbow, also called radial head subluxation, means that the radius has pulled away from its normal position. (The radius is one of two long bones in the lower arm, or forearm.) The ligament that supports the radial bone then slips into the elbow joint. When this happens, the radial bone can't move back into its normal place.

The radius connects to the elbow joint at one end. The other end connects into the wrist joint.

What causes nursemaid's elbow?

Nursemaid's elbow happens when a child is pulled or lifted by the hand or wrist while their arm is held straight. For example, the bone can pull out of position when you try to lift a child up onto a sidewalk by the hand. Or it could happen when you pull a child's hand to get them to move faster or when you hold onto a child's hands and swing them around while playing.

Nursemaid's elbow most often occurs in young children. This is because the socket of the elbow joint and the supporting ligaments are not fully developed. This injury is especially common in children between ages 2 and 3 years. But it can happen anytime between 6 months of age and 7 years. After age 3, children's joints and ligaments gradually grow stronger. This makes this injury less likely to happen.

Nursemaid's elbow in children: When to call

Call your doctor now or seek immediate medical care if:

  • Your child has severe pain.
  • Your child cannot bend or straighten an arm or refuses to move it.
  • Your child does not get better as expected.

©2011-2024 Healthwise, Incorporated

The content above contains general health information provided by Healthwise, Incorporated, and reviewed by its medical experts. This content should not replace the advice of your healthcare provider. Not all treatments or services described are offered as services by us. For recommended treatments, please consult your healthcare provider.